As NBC and other station groups and networks look to cut costs through layoffs and the adoption of new technology and job descriptions, unions are feeling threatened and are stepping up pressure locally and in Washington to preserve jobs and salaries.
Every so often, fans clustered around the studio windows of NBC’s Today show in Rockefeller Center are getting a view of something they didn’t bargain for — members of NABET-CWA waving placards and handing out flyers as part of the union’s attempt to pressure NBC Universal into finalizing a new contract.
NABET-CWA — formally, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications Workers of America — has stepped up pressure in other ways, including a demonstration involving around 100 members during NBC’s upfront presentation, at New York’s Town Hall Theater in May.
It’s been about five months since the expiration of the old contract, which covers 2,500 TV station and network staffers. The union has engaged in more than 25 different negotiations in an attempt to get a new contract, according to Jim Joyce, sector VP of the union. And, last July, the rank and file authorized a strike, but so far it hasn’t come to that.
This could also be the month when NABET-CWA gets some help from Washington. The National Labor Relations Board is investigating four separate complaints by the union that NBC is engaging in union-busting activities at its owned-and-operated stations in Washington, Chicago, Burbank and New York. (Those are the only NBC O&Os where NABET-CWA reps employees.)
NABET-CWA represents some 10,000 employees at around 100 stations. Its multi-pronged attack on NBC is one example of how it and other unions that represent the interests of TV employees are fighting back against TV stations and networks in their drive to cut jobs and salaries.
While unions and broadcasters have long been at odds, broadcasters’ attempts to curb union power is at an all-time high, union officials say.
“We’re seeing an attitude from employers that appears to be more unrelenting than even at the height of the previous administration, which was pro employer and pro business administration,” says Joyce. “The bargaining relationships have become much more adversarial.”
“We’re seeing an uptick in grievances over severance issues and also job protection and salary cuts,” says Debra Osofsky, national director of news and broadcast at the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). “It’s much more contentious than in the past.”
Last year, AFTRA’s efforts to protect member rights through the grievance process resulted in the collection of some $2 million in severance for more than 50 CBS network news and station ex-employees, who were located in 13 different markets.
There are two factors that are motivating the broadcasters’ aggression, explains Lowell Peterson, the recently named executive director of the Writers Guild of America East, which represents employees at 13 stations and networks.
“One is the recession, and one is the fundamental changes in the structure of the industry — how content is delivered to consumers, and how it’s paid for. The fact that they are happening simultaneously makes it the most difficult environment I’ve ever seen. It’s the perfect storm.”
Peterson says that the WGAE is gearing up for negotiations with CBS and ABC, whose contracts with the union expire early next year.
Peterson is among those closely monitoring the NRLB’s investigations of the four NBC stations, particularly because he represented NABET-CWA in a similar complaint against CNN before he was named to the Writers Guild post.
An NRLB administrative law judge issued a scathing decision against the cable network last December, determining that it had violated the rights of more than 250 workers when the network ended a 20-year contract with Team Video Services, which employed camera operators, broadcast engineers and other technicians who worked on behalf of CNN.
The network announced it was opening its own unit of employees to handle the same work — essentially a de-unionizing move, in the opinion of NABET-CWA.
While CNN is protesting the decision, it could cost the network some $100 million, according to Joyce. “It’s one of the largest unfair labor practice decisions that’s ever been handed down.”
NABET-CWA’s complaints against NBC also fall into the union-busting category. Essentially, the four NBC stations’ newsrooms have created two new titles for employees, “content producer” and “platform manager,” which would result in staff members taking on the responsibilities of multiple job functions, such as camera operator, editor, writer and possibly on-air reporter.
Staff members needed to re-apply for the jobs. “Based on their interpretation of our contract, [people assigned to] these jobs didn’t have to be repped by our union,” explains Joyce. “As it turned out, the people selected are still performing segregated job functions.”
The job-title dispute is but one of several points that NABET-CWA is arguing in its NBC contract negotiations. The union is also concerned that NBC wants to modify the seniority system. “Older, longer-term employees would be at risk of losing their jobs,” Joyce explains. What’s more, “NBC is seeking the right to have employees of CNBC, which aren’t covered by our contract, do NBC News pick ups.”
NBC Universal officials declined to comment on the union’s complaints, and issued the following statement: “In order to remain competitive in a rapidly evolving business, we continue to embrace new technology that improves how we gather, create and distribute content in today’s new media environment. The resulting operational changes affect both union and nonunion employees. Ultimately, we are trying to protect jobs, and any union will best serve its members by approaching these changes in a constructive and realistic manner.”
The statement masks the difficult tasks at hand for NBC Universal as a whole, and its broadcast operations as part of that. It’s not just the issue of embracing new technology and media platforms in an effective manner. According to General Electric’s second quarter 2009 report, the softened advertising market and pressure on local stations were two of the reasons why NBC Universal experienced a 41 percent decline in earnings, versus same period in 2008.
What’s more, NBC and its broadcasting counterparts face pending legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it more difficult for companies to counteract their employees’ attempts to unionize. The latest version of the legislation was introduced in March. It’s been passed by the House and moves to the floor of the Senate after the summer recess, according to Joyce.
Some suggest that broadcast companies are trying to push unions completely out of their business. Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, national executive director of AFTRA, won’t go that far. “But it is correct to say that companies are using technology to find ways to reduce expenses.”
No one can blame broadcasters for that, but AFTRA takes issue with how the combining of job functions, like camera operator and reporter, sometimes results in work overload, and compromises the quality of journalism.
That concern is echoed by Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild and Local 600 of the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE). “We’re not complete adversaries in these situations,” he says. “We only become adversaries when the wrong decisions are made.”