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To restart negotiations, union targets stations

Originally published in Current, Jan. 17, 2006
By Karen Everhart

The Communications Workers of America unit representing technicians at PBS and NPR plans to push local stations across the country for help improving the networks’ final contract offers.

“The only alternative for us is to go after the member stations,” said Mark Peach, president of the National Association of Broadcast Technicians/CWA Local 31. CWA has 700,000 members nationwide and is aligned with the AFL-CIO. “We’ll be asking our union brothers and sisters not to patronize local stations,” he said.

After extended negotiations, PBS and NPR technicians have rejected contracts their respective networks had put forward as their last, best offers. NPR technicians rejected management’s proposed contract in late December.

Last week, NPR upped the ante by declaring a legal impasse in contract talks, an action that allows it to begin implementing provisions in the rejected contract. NABET’s previous contract with NPR expired in October.

At PBS, where 50 bargaining unit employees voted down management’s final proposal Oct. 30, the union terminated a contract that expired in June 2004 and had been extended 18 months for talks.

PBS is willing to meet again with union reps but has “no flexibility to negotiate further,” said Lea Sloan, PBS spokeswoman. “We reached a point we felt was fair and was the maximum we could provide, and that was our final offer.”

To bring PBS and NPR back into bargaining mode, NABET aims to enlist the support from out of town.

The Washington Times reported Jan. 4 that NABET/CWA planned to ask union members to withhold donations to PBS member stations if the contract talks don’t resume. However, the union may address stations directly rather than asking donors to pressure them. At Current’s deadline, NABET reps were drafting a letter to pubradio station managers, asking them “to help us talk to NPR,” said Barbara Krieger, NABET v.p.

NABET may still ask union members across the country for support, but it would do so reluctantly. “We do not want to tell our members not to contribute to member stations,” Krieger said. “We realize it will hurt them.”

Last fall, NABET Local 31 handed out leaflets at NPR and CPB board meetings and launched a public campaign against WJLA, an ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. The campaign, which included bus ads, appealed to viewers and advertisers to support NABET as it negotiated a new contract with the station.

Although the jobs performed by broadcast technicians at PBS and NPR are quite different, technicians at both places feel increasingly vulnerable as media organizations adopt new technologies that allow them to streamline operations.

In memos circulated to NABET members before the NPR contract vote, the negotiating team and bargaining unit reps objected to several provisions in NPR’s final offer: redefinitions of technical and non-technical facilities and jurisdiction changes that reduce technicians’ roles in NPR host travel, sound mixing and tape syncs, among other areas. Management proposed to guarantee that it wouldn’t lay off current fulltime employees, but it wouldn’t protect new hires. The contract also required management to consult, rather than bargain, with the union over new technologies.

"I do not believe that I can adequately administrate this contract as it is written and still provide meaningful protection for your jobs,” wrote Mark Bejarano, a broadcast technician who is the liaison between NPR’s bargaining unit and NABET. “There is simply too much flexibility written into it. If you will recall, the reason you all voted a union in was to codify the rules and get management to stick to them.”

Changes in union jurisdiction would reduce technicians’ ability to ensure the quality of NPR’s audio, union reps contend. A provision in the rejected contract would allow NPR to send series hosts into the field with no engineer and make technical support on big stories optional, wrote technician Linda Mack in an e-mail. The change “can only have the effect of degrading the quality of the reporting,” she wrote.

NPR management believes it offered NABET a generous package, said Andi Sporkin, spokeswoman. NPR proposed a 3.5 percent pay increase at contract ratification and raises of 3 percent in 2007 and 2008, plus the no layoff guarantee and the addition of five NABET positions. NABET members also would have received bonuses had they ratified the contract. “In exchange, we were seeking the ability to change very outmoded operations and procedures that other broadcast organizations haven’t been using for years,” Sporkin said.

NABET plans to challenge NPR’s declaration of an impasse if the network begins to implement the new contract provisions, according to Krieger. “The next move is in the company’s hands — whether they return to the table or implement the contract without talking,” she said.

PBS and its NABET bargaining unit also disagree over jurisdictional language. Under contract provisions in effect for more than a decade, NABET waived restrictive work rules in exchange for management’s guarantee of at least 48 union jobs. PBS wanted to eliminate the language and reduce the quota to 37 guaranteed jobs, Sloan said. (Numbers proposed at the bargaining table ranged from 35 to 38, according to a memo distributed to NABET members.)

Layoffs were a major concern among the PBS employees. In a memo to technicians after they voted down the contract, their bargaining team pointed to new provisions that would split the group of employees with seniority into four groups. PBS “wanted to break it into groups so they can more easily pick and choose who they lay off,” Peach said.

PBS negotiators rejected NABET’s requests for enhanced training and buyout packages, he said.

But Sloan said PBS has tried to respond to NABET’s concerns about job security. “We continue to invest in significant training in job skill upgrades for technicians and we have no plans to give their work to anyone else,” she said. In the event that PBS lays off employees, NABET members will receive generous buyout packages, she said.

Severance provisions in the rejected PBS contract guarantee that employees who have worked at PBS for one year or less will receive two weeks’ pay and benefits, and the severance packages ramp up by length of employment to four months of pay and benefits for the most senior employees—those who have worked for PBS for 15 years or longer.

The rejected PBS and NPR contracts are posted on the Web at

Web page posted Jan. 17, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee


Custody of the "NPR sound" was at stake in 2002. NABET in the end agreed to sharing of technical duties with journalists.


NABET Local 31 website.

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