Men (and Women) In Black III

I was surprised to see a half page ad in today’s Hartford Courant from the air staff (members of AFTRA) at WFSB in Hartford. Their union negotiations have been contentious, to say the least, over the past few years.

Some long time employees have worked for Travelers Insurance, Post-Newsweek and now Meredith as station owners.

Travelers was local, which always makes a difference. And, at that time, the money was flowing in like water, to a station that had cost them a pittance to put on-the-air.

Post-Newsweek was a print oriented company and, though many people felt they weren’t as employee friendly as Travelers, the station continued to be a good place to work.

Meredith is also print oriented but it’s a different situation from Post-Newsweek. I am not involved in their labor negotiations, but I have heard that Meredith declared an impasse and implemented their last/best offer. There’s not much the union members can do short of walking out.

Today’s ad said the anchors and reporters would all wear black as a sign of solidarity – and they did. The ad also listed some of their grievances. A friend called me from their newsroom to say the tension was high and management had spoken to some on-the-air people.

Meredith is going to have to make a decision on how they value the folks on-the-air. Considering the preponderance of research that says, to a large extent, people watch TV stations because of whose on the air, I will be interested to see how far this goes.

This isn’t a grade school fight. Would Meredith really cut off their nose to spite their face? Will the union cripple the station by walking out and risking their own jobs at the same time? Are there more job actions to come or will cooler heads prevail? How can it benefit any company to be at war with their own staff?

I work for the competition and I want to win, but not by default against a crippled opponent. This time, the news will be from the newsroom.

(The Hartford Courant featured an article about the situation, which is attached below)

A Protest In Black And White

Channel 3 News Staff Keeps Attire Stark To Underscore Complaints About Work Rules

November 7, 2003

By MATTHEW KAUFFMAN, Courant Staff Writer

Color television is more than 50 years old, but a labor dispute at WFSB-TV, Channel 3, had reporters and anchors in black and white Thursday to publicize what they say are onerous work rules at the state’s No. 1 news station.

From the anchor desk to the weather map to the street, newscasters were dressed in black during Thursday’s shows, although there was no on-air mention of the coordinated protest.

To make sure the message got out, however, union leaders in Boston issued a press release early Thursday and bought a half-page ad in Thursday’s Courant.

“This is nobody’s first choice, to do something like this,” said Tom Higgins, New England broadcast director for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents the 25-person on-air staff at Channel 3. Higgins said the union had told management it wanted to keep the dispute “in the family,” but said the station has refused to return to the bargaining table.

The news employees have been without a signed contract for a year, and are working involuntarily under the terms of a contract offer the station made in June. That contract was unanimously rejected, Higgins said, but was later imposed under labor-law provisions that allow an employer to unilaterally set work rules after a contract expires and there is an impasse in negotiations.

Higgins said the publicity campaign made for a tense morning at the station. He said executives accused some union members of “sabotage” and told others their outfits violated the station’s clothing guidelines, which advise against wearing dark suits with dark shirts and dark ties. Higgins said he spent part of Thursday morning fielding calls from employees who were told they were out of compliance. Some switched ties or made other changes, Higgins said.

Elden Hale, Channel 3’s vice president and general manager, said he did not use the term “sabotage” and doesn’t know whether anyone else did. He would not discuss the station’s clothing guidelines.

“This is simply typical union gamesmanship,” Hale said of the protest. “I’m very disappointed that the union has taken this step.”

Hale said that earlier in the week he received a request for a meeting from six station employees, two of whom were involved in contract negotiations. He said he responded in writing that he would meet with any station employee anytime to discuss issues of concern.

Hale would not say Thursday whether that offer extended to employees of AFTRA, and would not say whether the station was willing to resume formal contract negotiations, saying that under labor laws, that question came with complicated legal ramifications.

As for the union’s contention that the protest was staged solely to get the company back to the negotiating table, Hale said: “Isn’t that what unions always say?”

Hale also said that not everyone participated in the protest, but would not say who or how many employees chose not to.

WFSB is owned by Iowa-based Meredith Corp., which acquired the station in 1997. Higgins said AFTRA previously negotiated two contracts with the company “without any great fanfare,” but said Meredith proposed sweeping changes during the current negotiations.

Higgins said that under the station’s proposal, reporters and anchors can be terminated for what management considers unsatisfactory job performance, and will be denied severance pay unless they agree not to bring discrimination complaints against the company.

He said that even terminated employees can be prevented from working at other stations in the market for as long as a year, and said the contract also gives the station the right to replace reporters with subcontractors.

Hale said that is not an accurate description of the contract, but would not say what part of the union’s description was incorrect.

Meredith offered what it termed a final offer last June, which Higgins said was rejected unanimously. After a session with a federal mediator, a new contract offer was submitted to members during the summer, and was overwhelmingly rejected, he said. No talks have been held since.

Thursday’s protest involved only the on-air staff. Camera operators and other technical employees are members of a separate union, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians.

In its first attempt to prod management to resume negotiations, AFTRA in September had asked its members at Channel 3 to boycott a celebrity golf tournament held as a fund-raiser for the Channel 3 Kids Camp. But the union rescinded the request after talking with the head of the camp.

Higgins said the union’s campaign to jump-start contract negotiations would continue, but he said members haven’t decided on their next move.

“Our goal is to get the company back to the table,” he said. “What comes next, I don’t know.”

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