Almost a year ago, union contracts governing about 100 video editors, engineers, and broadcast directors at Seattle's three major local television stations expired. One station, KOMO TV, resolved the matter quickly, reaching a new agreement with its employees from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46 (IBEW) on March 21.
Another station, KING TV, is now in mediation with its IBEW workers.
But at the third television station, KIRO TV, things are going in a very different—and increasingly acrimonious—direction.
Owned by the large national media conglomerate Cox Enterprises, KIRO has been demanding that its IBEW employees give up their freedom to engage in basic union activities such as striking, talking to the media about their grievances, and negotiating for better compensation. Since the union first went public with its concerns about KIRO's hard line ["Labor Pains," March 30], things have deteriorated further, according to union representative Angela Marshall—to the point that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has become involved.
"We're still in the same place," Marshall complains of the standoff.
Meanwhile, her union went to the NLRB over an attempt earlier this year by KIRO to put nonunion employees in union jobs—a move that Marshall said was accompanied by offers of raises for certain employees if they left the union, and threats of job loss if they did not. The 36 IBEW members at KIRO earn between $25.30 and $32.86 an hour.
KIRO general manager Eric Lerner did not respond to a request for comment on Marshall's allegations and the status of negotiations.
But the NLRB sided with the union in an August 1 decision clarifying that certain KIRO employees, known as "Ignite operators"—people who work a machine called Ignite that "resembles the cockpit of an aircraft" and is used to control the production of a newscast—must be union employees. (In an interesting look into the larger forces driving this particular conflict, the NLRB noted that the Ignite machine easily does tasks that previously required many camera operators, audio operators, and graphics producers to accomplish—and the machine led to the loss of about a dozen union jobs at KIRO.)
As for the allegations that KIRO tried to strong-arm these union-affiliated Ignite operators into leaving their union: In April, union officials told the national labor board that "high level KIRO managers intimidated employee witnesses and told them that they had 24 hours to either quit the union or they would lose their jobs."
But the NLRB didn't see it the way the union did; the charges were found to be without merit. The union is "very much in disagreement" with the NLRB's dismissal of the charges, Marshall said, and is appealing.
In addition to all of this, the union filed a formal grievance with KIRO management on April 11 over what Marshall said was "their assignment of nonunion employees to union editing work." That complaint is now heading for arbitration on September 22.
"The viewers of Seattle expect better," Marshall said of KIRO's behavior over the last year. The union has collected thousands of online signatures in support of its fight and posted an article about its plight on an IBEW website.
But the question remains: Is it willing to go further?
Marshall said a strike is no one's "first option," but she didn't take the possibility off the table.