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Technicians yield ground

on audio job duties at NPR

Originally published in Current, June 12, 2006
By Mike Janssen

NPR’s union technicians approved a contract May 24 [2006] that yields to non-technicians much of their exclusive authority to record and edit audio.

The vote ended months of stalemates and difficult negotiations between management and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications Workers of America, which represents about 85 technical workers at NPR.

Now that many journalists can edit sound on desktop computers, the technicians ceded work that they had done exclusively for years. In exchange, NPR gave them higher pay, stronger protections against layoffs and other concessions.

NPR executives maintained that the jurisdictional changes were essential to make news production more flexible and efficient. NABET employees had already given up some duties in their first contract, which took effect in 2002 and expired in October.

The high turnout rate in last month’s vote — 94 percent — reflects that the contract was “quite controversial,” says Barbara Krieger, a union v.p. Two of the three negotiating committee members had okayed the contract. And among employees, the sweetened raises and pay scales probably helped garner the approval vote of 61 percent, Krieger says.

But the extra money failed to soothe fears among some technicians that giving up duties amounted to writing their own pink slips.

“We lost the ability of keeping our work, and that’s the bottom line,” says Sue Klein, a former NPR technician and the negotiating committee member who opposed forwarding the contract for the vote. “We do not have our work. It can be given to anyone.”

NPR fired Klein last fall — as retaliation for her position in negotiations, she believes. The National Labor Relations Board dismissed her complaint against the company, but she plans to appeal and has a claim pending with the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights.

Of the two negotiators who supported the contract, one did not return calls seeking comment, and the other declined to be interviewed.

The new contract, effective until March 2009, frees reporters, producers and other non-NABET staffers to take up a range of technical tasks without an engineer’s supervision. They can now mix their own stories and record tape syncs and phone interviews.

Work rules will no longer require engineers to sign off on nonengineers’ audio mixes before broadcast or to accompany program hosts on reporting trips. They do, however, retain exclusive responsibility for supervising live or complicated remotes and for operating equipment in technical facilities.

The new work rules took a twisty path to eventual approval. NABET members rejected the changes in a December contract vote. The next month, NPR management declared a legal impasse in negotiations and began implementing the jurisdictional shifts.

That prompted complaints to the NLRB from both NABET and NPR’s other big union, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which represents hosts, reporters, producers and some NPR Digital Media staffers. AFTRA members felt that management violated its contract by failing to consult with them about the new duties and that they were being pitted against NABET. 

An arbitrator sided with AFTRA in March and stopped NPR management from reassigning the technical duties. NPR and NABET resumed talks and arrived at the contract now in effect. Approval of the new contract scrubbed the union’s NLRB complaint against management.

NABET employees will receive raises totaling 13 percent over three years and a 1 percent signing bonus. The contract protects part-time employees from layoffs and provides for bimonthly meetings between management and a union rep. Management is required to inform the union of operational changes affecting “terms or conditions of employment” of NABET workers, and the contract specifies using a mediator if necessary.

NPR management has committed to hiring four additional full-time technicians and promised not to lay off NABET workers employed at the date of the contract’s execution. But one technician who rejected the contract notes that it does not safeguard future hires and allows layoffs if a program is canceled and non-union staffers are cut as well. There are also no guarantees about the fate of employees after the contract expires.

“They have laid the groundwork for certainly the downsizing, if not the elimination, of many of our jobs,” says the technician, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“If you want to start transferring our job functions to other people, I can understand that,” the technician says. “But how about opening up some of the other responsibilities to engineers?”

The contract “doesn’t afford people who want to grow with the company as technical people the opportunity to do that,” says Andrea Jackson-Gewirtz, a broadcast recording technician.

As for AFTRA, the union is likely to welcome the job changes now that they have NABET’s approval. A union rep hopes to meet with NABET and NPR management to agree on the scope of the reassigned duties, says Richard Harris, a science correspondent and AFTRA negotiator.

Web page posted June 13, 2006
Current
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2006

EARLIER ARTICLES

Digital audio production came to NPR in the late '90s, after many production houses. Adding audio editing capability to ordinary PCs put the craft in reach of many journalists.

In 2002 NPR technicians said custody of the network's sound was at stake, but they settled on sharing duties with journalists. The 2006 contract takes that a step further.

AFTRA sided with NABET, temporarily halting implementation of the job rules in 2006.

OUTSIDE LINKS

NABET's Krieger says the union local accepted NPR's olive branch.

In the print media, the expert technicians were the typesetters, but that trade was rapidly transformed and opened to nontechnicians (and the union shrunken) by the coming of digital page composition, according to this account on the website of the Alica Patterson Foundation.

 

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