THE STATE OF OUR UNIONS, by David Bacon

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Thrown into a defensive position by aggressive monopolies, media workers unions seek new sources of strength.

Bay Area media unions, like those everywhere else in the country, live today in the shadow of Detroit. Newspaper workers at the Detroit News and Free Press have been on strike for three years, since walking out in 1995 over corporate demands for deep concessions. Although the National Labor Relations Board ruled this year that the newspapers’ management had engaged in illegal bad-faith bargaining, a decision that gave strikers the right to immediate reinstatement with back pay, the two newspapers continue to run with strike breakers. The sorry state of U.S. labor law allows employers to appeal NLRB decisions for years through the courts. In the meantime, only a handful of strikers have been rehired, and there is still no contract or union at the papers.

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The Detroit strike is not an isolated case of union busting, but the key battle in a long series of labor wars between media workers and the huge corporations that have come to dominate the industry. The battle of Detroit was preceded by newspaper strikes in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. San Francisco experienced its share of the conflict with a 12-day strike in 1994. In the early ’90s, NBC (now a subsidiary of General Electric) took on the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians in a strike that lasted 19 weeks. As this article goes to press, Disney has taken up the battle, locking out NABET technicians at the network and at individual stations across the country.

These labor wars are one product of the increasing monopolization of the communications industry. Giant corporations like Gannett and Knight-Ridder, owners of the Detroit News and Free Press, respectively, have deep pockets. They can afford to run a struck newspaper at a loss for a long period of time–and they’re willing do so, because while they’re losing money at that paper, they and other employers throughout the industry are gaining overall by creating a bargaining environment in which they can win concessions, limit the wage and other economic demands of unions, and discourage workers from organizing at non-union operations.

Increases in wages and conditions are still possible, and workers still win them. But the overall climate is one in which unions fight a succession of defensive battles, trying to protect their jurisdictions, the jobs of their members, and the work rules and conditions established decades ago, when unions were stronger and the industry less monopolized.

This environment has had a profound effect on Bay Area media workers. But in northern California, it has been balanced by the relative success of the newspaper strike four years ago that beat off the local attack on wages and conditions.

Strikes & Contracts

Photo ©1998 David Bacon

Workers locked out by Disney-owned ABC picket at the KGO building in SF.

When the San Francisco dailies and their distribution and production arm, the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, brought in the union-busting law firm of King and Ballow during 1994 contract negotiations,”We knew what that meant,” recalls Carl Hall, president of the Northern California Media Workers Guild(formerly the Northern California Newspaper Guild). “We could see the strike coming.”

At the New York Daily News, King and Ballow orchestrated a five- month long walkout in the early ’90s, which newspaper unions made a national rallying cry.According to Ed Rosario, an executive board member of the Bay Area’s Web Pressmen Local 4, the key to winning the New York strike was the strength of the delivery unions. “Management could replace its pressmen,” Rosario says, “and the people in the newsrooms. But although they could get a shell of a paper printed, they couldn’t get it into the hands of any readers without the drivers. King and Ballow’s whole strategy rested on trying to break them off from the other unions, and they weren’t able to do it.”

 

After hiring King and Ballow, the San Francisco Newspaper Agency began firing the young people who walk the paper routes. “First they get rid of the kids,” explains Andy Cirkelis, then secretary-treasurer of the drivers union, Teamsters Local 921, “and bring in adults to drive the routes instead, throwing the papers from cars. Then they get rid of our drivers, since they can get the adults to come pick up their papers from a central distribution point. Once they weaken the drivers, it’s much easier for them to go after the other unions.

By the time the strike began, however, the San Francisco unions were well-prepared. Cirkelis had won important community support by defending the jobs of youth carriers. Even before the strike started, the Council of Newspaper Unions began preparing to publish its own newspaper, the Free Press. During the strike, major advertisers such as Macy’s and the Emporium hedged their bets by placing full-page ads in both the strikers’ newspaper and theChronicle and Examiner, which management continued publishing in much thinner form.

Tensions ran high as management hired over 350 Huffmaster guards and began advertising for strikebreakers. In Mountain View, Kirk Wilson, a striking driver, was electrocuted after mistakenly cutting power lines into an Agency distribution facility. After 12 days, the two newspapers decided to call it quits.

Hall called the strike “a victory, given what our members were looking at.” Rosario says “they were out to destroy us, and we stopped them.”

The biggest compromise was made by the drivers, who agreed that after 90 days, management could begin to eliminate their jobs by attrition. For two years after the strike, conflict continued to rage, particularly between the Newspaper Agency and the drivers and pressmen. In the years since the strike, the Agency has built a new workforce of largely immigrant independent contractors to drive delivery routes and throw papers from cars. While the Agency’s intention was to undermine the leverage of Teamster drivers, these new drivers proved to be more militant than it expected. They’ve conducted at least two lightening strikes to push up pay rates and are now discussing union affiliation.

Each network attempts to gain more concessions than the other, while the union seeks to keep job security from becoming a distant memory.

Finally, last year, the Guild and other unions agreed to an unprecedented contract extension through 2005, with 3-percent wage increases annually. “I think the San Francisco papers are interested in avoiding a battle with their employees when they’re going to have to fight a lot harder with Knight-Ridder,” Hall speculates. In the last year, the Knight-Ridder chain has moved its national headquarters from Miami to San Jose and made the Mercury News its flagship publication.

Knight-Ridder also bought the Contra Costa Times, giving the chain a big foothold in the suburbs of the northern Bay Area, and the Monterey Herald. Newsroom workers at the Herald, as well as at the Mercury News, are represented by the San Jose Newspaper Guild. But after taking over the Monterey daily last year, management fired the paper’s Guild-represented employees, telling them they were free to reapply for their old jobs. Some were rehired; others weren’t. Negotiations for a new contract have been going on ever since, with Knight-Ridder demanding massive changes in what had been one of the Guild’s best agreements.

Meanwhile, the Northern California Media Workers Guild, with the able coordination of organizer Erin Poh, finally reorganized the Oakland Tribune. The Guild unit there was destroyed a decade ago with the paper’s purchase by newspaper magnate Dean Singleton’s Alameda Newspaper Group. In the intervening years, workers at the other papers in the ANG chain, including the Fremont Argus, the Tri-Valley Herald, the Alameda Times-Star, the Hayward Daily Review, and the Peninsula Times-Herald, have chosen Guild representation. In October, the union finally won a contract covering all of them. The pay scale is still far below the standard in San Francisco and San Jose, however, and includes a merit-pay system allowing management to pay different salaries to workers doing the same job. Merit-pay systems sound fair, but since they allow supervisors and managers to give raises at their discretion, they often result in favoritism and are used to punish workers who speak out for better conditions. But the Guild nevertheless sees the agreement as a victory, given the intense opposition it faced for so long, and the chance to improve conditions over time.

In the past two years, the Northern California Guild has also won contracts at the McClatchy newspapers in the Central Valley–the Sacramento, Fresno and Modesto Bees. McClatchy, too, had refused to renegotiate contracts for years, and the union again agreed to a modified merit-pay system as the price of renewed agreements.

Broadcasting Battles

Although their struggles have been less publicized, broadcasting unions are also embroiled in the labor wars. ABC–including local affiliates KGO-TV and KGO radio–has been operating without a contract covering its technical staff since the last one expired in March of 1997. Disney, which now owns ABC, insisted that its health plan be substituted for the network’s union-negotiated medical coverage. ABC, however, refused to provide details of the coverage, which was recently rejected by thousands of Disney World employees who have been covered by it for years.

When ABC’s technical union, NABET, struck for one day to force the network to provide details, Disney locked the workers out across the country. Strike breakers were brought in to replace them. When union workers began following the scab crews, holding up picket signs on camera behind newscasters on location, a California judge prohibited them from picketing and chanting slogans in the vicinity of the scabs.

Beyond the immediate issue of the medical plan, however, lie deeper and more difficult conflicts, many of which highlight the impact of changes in technology and the workforce on media unions generally. ABC is proposing that NABET members not have sole jurisdiction over any piece of equipment containing a microprocessor. These days, cameras, sound boards, and even tape cartridge players have chips controlling their operation. ABC’s proposal would essentially allow anyone to use most broadcast equipment, seriously eroding the union’s control over the work, and most likely leading to the replacement of NABET members with non-union workers. In addition, the network wants greater freedom than ever to use contract workers instead of permanent employees. While the union represents many daily-hire workers, these workers often don’t qualify for benefits and have no job security.

The use of daily hires has been mushrooming in the broadcast industry. The contract which expired prior to the present negotiations with ABC limits the amount of technical work that can be performed by such workers to 14 percent. At NBC, however, the union was forced to agree to 26 percent in its last contract, due to expire again next year. Now ABC wants 42 percent. Each network attempts to gain more concessions than the other, while the union seeks to keep job security from becoming a distant memory.

Technicians at the CBS network are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, as are the technical employees of local stations KTVU, KRON, and KPIX. Unions which represent network employees don’t necessarily represent the same jobs at local stations affiliated to those networks. But despite jurisdictional competition in the past, IBEW members have been prominent in the KGO picket lines, supporting their fellow unionists in NABET.

The union at public station KPFA, which for years was affiliated with the independent and progressive United Electrical Workers, decided two years ago to affiliate with the Communications Workers of America. Philip Maldari, one of three shop stewards at the station, says that workers needed more support from their parent union than they were getting from the UE. Last year, the station’s union for the first time faced a professional, hired negotiator across the bargaining table. In addition, the Pacifica Foundation, which owns the station, briefly hired the American Consulting Group, a notorious union-busting firm, to provide advice on negotiating strategy.

In the end, the union agreed to a new contract with significant wage raises. New staff members hired to work on specific programs will become at-will employees, however, with no seniority rights to move into other jobs if their programs are terminated. While this is standard procedure at commercial radio and television stations, at KPFA job security based on seniority had historically been viewed as the tradeoff for considerably lower salaries. In addition, unpaid staff, who still produce much of the station’s programming, were excluded from the bargaining unit, and therefore are no longer covered by the union contract’s protection.

“We kept our closed shop,” Maldari notes, “with no hiring of casual employees, and maintained job security for the vast majority. Our old contract had good provisions, but much of it was unenforceable. So we were very happy, on the whole, with the new agreement, and with CWA.”

The Emerging Front: New Technology

Despite the difficult negotiating environment, Bay Area newspaper and broadcasting unions have been able to maintain a wage standard significantly above the salary level for non-union workers. When NABET organized the Spanish-language KDTV (Channel 14) a year ago, the station paid technical workers about $8 an hour, according to NABET Local 51 President Kevin Wilson. The unionization drive was a bitter conflict, with a popular employee fired for union activity and a year spent in negotiations. In the end, however, workers at the station won raises of up to 35 percent. “At non-union stations, wages average $10 an hour,” Wilson says. “Our scale starts at $22.”

In the Chronicle and Examiner newsrooms, salaries start at over $600 a week, and workers get to top scale–close to $1000 a week–within six years. The ANG papers pay significantly less. At a non-union newspaper, wages depend on relations with supervisors and can vary widely. But the bottom is pretty low–about $400 a week, according to the Northern California Guild’s Hall.

Rebecca Rhine, local negotiator for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, believes that the only way to protect union salary levels is to find ways to maintain union strength in the face of new technology. AFTRA represents the on-air talent in broadcasting, as well as directors, writers, and producers. “In my opinion,” Rhine says, “unions don’t have the option of stopping technological change. But we can ensure that the new jobs it creates are union jobs.”

That’s still a controversial position in a union town where a mid-1960s agreement allowing the introduction of new container technology on the San Francisco waterfront was followed by a drastic decline in longshore jobs. Harry Bridges, the famous longshoremen’s leader who signed the agreement, also asserted that the union couldn’t stop the advance of technology, but only ensure that the union’s strength and jurisdiction were maintained.

“Sometimes it’s a battle with our own members as much as anything else,” Rhine says. “It’s hard for people who have done their jobs a certain way for many years to adjust and learn new skills. People are always suspicious of anything that seems to increase their workload. But when we say we want to take on this new stuff and become the most valuable workforce in the company, our members get it.”

Technological changes often bring about conflicts between as well as within unions–when broadcast employers, for instance, want on-air workers represented by one union to do work typically performed by members of other unions, such as editing tape in mobile TV vans or carrying small videocams.

Most media unions, however, and even some others, are looking hard at the jobs being created by new, especially digital, technology. Last year, the Institute for Global Communications became the first union Internet service provider when the staff voted to join the San Francisco city workers union, Service Employees Local 790.

AFTRA already represents radio and television personalities and recording artists, who are often hired to appear on CD-ROMS, and even as voices in voicemail systems. As a result, the union has been able to sign contracts with producers of the new media, when its members take the position that they won’t do the work unless it’s under union contract, receiving union benefits.

“For us,” Rhine notes, “it’s a constant education process. The good jobs that everyone craves are a result of producers being forced to respect the conditions the union has established.”

Freelancers Unite

Reliance on the activism of members is a hallmark of the media union that’s least traditional in the way it organizes–the National Writers Union, affiliated with the United Auto Workers.

The NWU is an organization of freelancers who write material ranging from newspaper and magazine articles to technical manuals to novels and poetry. Because its members are paid as independent contractors, it’s illegal for the union to try to establish payment schedules–the federal government interprets that as price-fixing, putting lowly writers in the same basket as monopoly corporations.

The union has a few agreements with progressive national magazines–including The Nation, Mother Jones, and In These Times–that set freelance rates and specify the rights of writers at each individual publication. The union had a similar agreement with the SF Weekly when it was independently owned, but lost it after the New Times chain bought the paper.

Instead of bargaining directly, the NWU relies on providing information to members, including the official payment schedules of publishers, sample contracts for the sale of books and articles, and a history of the problems experienced by writers with different media outlets. “We focus on trying to change conditions genre by genre,” says Bruce Hartford, the NWU’s national secretary-treasurer. “There are way too many publications out there to bargain with them individually anyway.”

The union maintains an active grievance division, which specializes in collecting payment for writers from deadbeat publications. It also handles complaints that affect writers as a group. The online database Northern Lights, for instance, which charges clients for finding and downloading electronic versions of requested articles, pays nothing to the writers who produce the articles, and the union has been battling the company for royalties. It has also carried on a long-running legal fight with the New York Times to win additional pay for writers when their articles are published electronically. The newspaper claims that when it purchases print rights it automatically owns electronic rights as well.

Here again, the development of a new contract workforce creates the potential for jurisdictional conflict between unions. On the one hand, the NWU represents freelancers whose income often depends on selling articles to publications including newspapers. The Newspaper Guild, on the other hand, has an interest in preventing newspapers from using freelancers on an unlimited basis: The work done by full-time reporters and photographers can easily be subcontracted to freelancers, and at non-union publications, such as alternative weeklies, it often is.

The Newspaper Guild and the Writers Union have cooperated in the past and tried to present a common front to newspapers. During contract negotiations with the Examiner and the Chronicle, the Guild has asked the papers to incorporate the standard Writers Union contract language protecting freelancers. Hall says that “the employers always just say no,” while the NWU’s Hartford notes that “the Examiner and the Chronicle use antitrust law as an excuse to refuse to talk to us directly.”

Marcy Sheiner, co-coordinator for NWU’s Bay Area Local 3 (the union’s third largest), says local membership is up to about 600. The local has three divisions, for journalists, tech writers, and authors of poetry and fiction. In addition to handling grievances, it puts on seminars to help members with everything from tax problems to contracts.

Toward a National Union?

The variety and number of Bay Area media unions has created space for experimentation and the development of new ideas about how media workers can be organized, and how to enforce workplace rights in an era of rapidly developing technology. But fragmentation is also the source of enormous weakness, especially given the power of media monopolies.

Some media unions are beginning to merge as a result. The International Typographical Union, the country’s oldest labor organization (it represented linotype operators in the era when newspapers were printed with metal type, and now represents workers in page production, as well as in smaller printing shops) has joined the Newspaper Guild. And both organizations ceased being independent unions and affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, the union for workers in the telephone and communications industry. NABET has also joined CWA.

These mergers are bringing under one roof media workers whose jobs depend on the network of electronic communications and workers who build, service, and operate that network. As workers move toward fewer and larger unions, organized on an industry-wide basis, they are in a much better position to bargain with huge corporations.

During the 1994 San Francisco newspaper strike, the unions’ most potent weapon was their unity. The papers’ various unions belonged to the Council of Newspaper Unions, and although they had individual contracts, the agreements all expired at the same time, and the unions negotiated together. When they struck, they agreed that no union would break the common front and return to work without a settlement for all the rest.

In contrast, during the ABC dispute, while NABET members picket KGO, AFTRA members, who have no protection in their contract for refusing to cross a picket line, continue to do their jobs as usual. The bargaining power of broadcast unions would be greatly increased if they created a union council like that at the newspapers, with common contract expiration dates and protection for workers who refuse to cross union picket lines. Under those circumstances, it’s doubtful that ABC would ever have locked out its technicians.

Ultimately, it would serve the interests of media workers if they belonged to one national union, the organizational solution chosen by media workers in most other countries. The progressive union federation that rose out of the apartheid era in South Africa, for instance, uses the guiding principle “one industry, one union.”

There is support for the idea: At AFTRA, which is in the process of voting to merge with the Screen Actors Guild, Rhine believes that “we should all be in one union,” although she doesn’t see that happening in the near future, and the Newspaper Guild’s Hall has a vision of “one seamless, scrappy group,” facing media employers.

Ethnic media organizations, including associations of African American, Latino, and Asian American journalists, in some ways have made more progress in this direction than unions have: They cross craft lines and often have a greater connection to communities of color. But they also include management personnel, and in bitter workplace battles like the Detroit strike, they experience internal conflicts over whose side to take.

Newspaper unions have made important connections to the broader labor movement and to community organizations during strikes. NABET is making those connections now during its battle with ABC. That’s natural–all unions look for allies when they’re under attack. It’s much harder, however, to maintain those connections after the struggle is over, and harder still to respond to attacks on other communities with their own sets of issues.

“Like any union, we respond better and more in mass during a crisis,” Hall says.

For instance, while media unions last June saw a natural self-interest in opposing Proposition 226, which attacked their ability to contribute to candidates during elections, there was much less interest in opposing Proposition 227, which attacked bilingual education and was opposed strongly by the Latino and Asian communities.

Permanent alliances between media unions and working-class communities are being built, but it’s an uphill battle. While union leaders and activists think such alliances are a good idea, they rely on union members themselves developing greater political consciousness. Transforming unions from business organizations, in which members exchange dues for services, into social movements requires a change in thinking at the base. Members have to view themselves as participants in a movement to defend the interests of all working-class people, both inside unions and in the broader community.

Educating members and talking about issues beyond the workplace is difficult in any union. In media unions, it’s even harder, especially in the unions whose members produce the media’s content–the writers, reporters, photographers, newscasters, producers, and on-air personalities. There’s tremendous pressure to adopt a detached “neutral” or “objective” attitude (as those terms are defined by employers) toward social movements. The cost of abandoning such “neutrality” and acting as a social activist as well as a reporter, for instance, can be a career put on hold.

A new education program recently produced by the AFL-CIO’s education department, called Common Sense Economics, could help union members understand how large corporations have come to dominate the U.S. economy and political system. Internal education like this could go a long way toward helping media union members to become conscious and well-informed social activists.

But media unions don’t operate in isolation. What’s missing is a broader progressive political agenda and organization for media activists in general, one committed to the interests of workers and their unions, but one able to address content issues as well. That agenda and organization could help define the interests of people in the media as workers, while at the same time developing ties between media workers and social and community movements. It could help to create a new vision of what it means to be a progressive media activist.

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