KPCC newsroom votes to unionize over top talents' objection

kpcc-logo-2013.jpgKPCC's aspirations to be a public radio analog of the LA Times will have to go forward under a condition the newspaper's managers never faced. The KPCC newsroom staff voted 35 to 26 last week to join SAG-AFTRA, according to a web story this afternoon by the station's former news director, Paul Glickman, now listed as senior editor for projects. The vote was tallied today by the National Labor Relations Board, the story says, and means that 65 reporters, producers, show hosts and news anchors will be represented by the Hollywood union.

There has been newsroom tension over the union question since at least November, when Glickman says that an organizing committee presented management with a letter signed by 41 staffers calling for union representation. Just before the Jan. 11 vote, a website called "Reasons to say NO to SAG-AFTRA" went up with arguments against the union from some of the station's top names, including show hosts Larry Mantle, John Rabe and Alex Cohen. The website's "Why we’re here" statement said that "over the past few months, you’ve heard from many of your co-workers who support using SAG-AFTRA as representation. Not all of your colleagues feel this way. There are reporters, producers, hosts, anchors, and digital staff who feel the union is not the best option."

"Airtalk" host Mantle used the forum to explain why he was voting no on the union after weeks of campaigning at the station. He said he looked into "the tradeoffs" of engaging in collective bargaining with a national union. An excerpt:

It's easy to understand the frustration that some of us have over a number of important issues. We've gone through big changes, and added fresh challenges on top of problems that hadn't been resolved earlier. It's logical to look to collective action as a way to create greater clarity and a better sense of shared direction.

I'm also impressed by how thoughtfully and committedly SCPR employees relate to their work and our shared mission. It's clear that this organizing effort springs from wanting to make SCPR better, not just addressing a list of complaints. That's what I love about our workplace culture, and what I understand is comparatively rare at other media companies. When I visit NPR or other public radio stations, I get a very different feel than I do at KPCC. We hear that regularly from visitors who've been elsewhere.

Given how valuable our culture is, and how I think it could change as a result of unionizing, I've decided to vote against SAG/AFTRA membership. I know that some who support unionization don't think creating a bargaining unit will harm the spirit of SCPR. I wish I could be so confident. I think unionizing would create a more consistent, but more rigid, relationship between employees and management, regardless of how we customize our contract or management procedures.

Rabe, the host of "Off-Ramp," also gave his reservations about a union coming into the newsroom. An excerpt:

I respect the work SAG and AFTRA and other unions have done to protect workers from abusive employers....I also absolutely respect and support the right of SCPR employees to vote on the union; that’s why I signed the petition. I also don’t think it will be a disaster if we vote in a union; we’ll get along and continue to do good work. But at this point, I think it’s pretty clear that management, from Bill Davis on down, gets the message that they screwed up pretty seriously, and seems to be making honest efforts to remedy the most serious problems. But I’m frustrated by the lack of certainty if we vote in a union, and I want to see a contract before I vote.

Sounds like there has been some significant dissatisfaction as KPCC has grown rapidly on the web, brought in new newsroom managers and changed hosts and shows. Dissatisfaction, by the way, that has not been covered by the station or any media reporters that I've seen. Mantle and Rabe did not reply when I contacted them about their comments. After I inquired, the website's comments were moved behind a password wall.

In today's story, both labor and management said everything would be cool going forward into contract negotiations.

“We respect the right of people to collectively bargain and to vote, and we are looking forward now to the negotiation phase,” said Bill Davis, who runs the station as president and CEO of Southern California Public Radio. "We go back to working as one unit....The organization’s mission, goals and objectives do not change one bit.”

Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, identified as a member of the in-house union organizing committee, also sounded collegial. “We look forward to sitting down with management to collectively bargain for the content employees at KPCC,” Guzman-Lopez said. "We want to continue making this a very strong news organization, and we hope that this will allow us to grow even more.”

Variety also reported the outcome of the union vote. "We're pleased and excited with the results of the union election at KPCC. We are looking forward to working with the new SAG-AFTRA bargaining unit in partnership with KPCC management to negotiate a first contract," the union said in a statement "We are proud of the effort to organize a union at KPCC and believe that the employees' commitment to positive engagement, along with a lot of hard work -- delivered this great result."

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