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Staffers at Seattle's most prominent National Public Radio affiliate are getting a union. In a card check this week, KUOW reporters, producers, and other staffers overwhelmingly elected to join SAG-AFTRA, a union representing radio and TV journalists across the country. The move represents the first time in KUOW's 65-year history that the station's journalists will have union representation.
“We’re really looking forward to this new chapter at KUOW," said Ann Dornfeld, a reporter and member of the organizing committee, in an interview. "We think it will be good not only for our workers but for our listeners."
Dornfeld said KUOW staffers began organizing last summer in hopes of improving pay and getting more say in decisions like newsroom reorganizations. At the heart of their fight: making sure KUOW staff can afford to live in the increasingly expensive city they cover.
"Your ability to live in the city of Seattle and afford life here can be really dependent on doing so in conjunction with a partner who has a better paying job than you do," Dornfeld said. "That's going to narrow the number of people willing to come to Seattle. When we really want to diversify our mostly white newsroom, that doesn’t do us any favors."
Some entry-level employees at KUOW make less than $40,000, Dornfeld said. Others make salaries in the $40,000 range. Those "shockingly low" starting salaries are lower than KNXK (another NPR affiliate in Seattle) and KQED in San Francisco, Dornfeld said. That pay can leave KUOW staffers living with their parents or struggling to make ends meet. "We think that's ridiculous at a station that is as prosperous as KUOW is," Dornfeld said. According to tax documents, the station raised about $12 million in grants and donations in 2015. According to Dornfeld, KUOW's annual budget is now about $15 million. UPDATE: University of Washington spokesperson Victor Balta said that as of the start of February, after a compensation study, there are no full-time KUOW employees making less than $40,000. Before that, one entry-level staffer made less than $40,000, Balta said. (KUOW is licensed through the University of Washington.)
In a statement provided by the union, producer Amina Al-Sadi said, "To keep serving our listeners well, we need to be able to afford to live in the communities we serve."
The station has about 100 employees, around 60 of whom will be part of the bargaining unit. According to the union, the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission certified the vote through a card check in which more than 70 percent of those who will be represented by the union signed cards in favor. The KUOW bargaining unit will include announcers, hosts, producers, reporters, and digital and community engagement staff.
SAG-AFTRA represents 160,000 workers nationwide, according to the union. Those members include staff at NPR, KNKX, and Seattle's three major local TV news stations: KING 5, KOMO, and KIRO.
According to Dornfeld, management at the station and UW did not launch an anti-union campaign. In a statement, UW spokesperson Victor Balta said, "We look forward to bargaining in good faith. We anticipate we will all benefit from ongoing dialog with KUOW staff as we continue the important service we provide for our community."
This story has been updated with comment from the University of Washington.