WHYY employees vote to unionize, join SAG-AFTRA

WHYY on 6th Street in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

WHYY on 6th Street in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A group of WHYY employees voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to join a union and begin collective bargaining over pay and workplace conditions at the NPR-affiliated public broadcaster.

The reporters, editors, producers, program hosts and other content creators voted 70 to 1 to be represented by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), WHYY management and the union organizers said.

“We’re ready to negotiate for a fair contract worthy of our amazing unit, and fight to make sure our challenged colleagues are in our union,” the organizers wrote on Twitter, referring to employees whose eligibility for union membership has been challenged by WHYY. “This is just the beginning and there’s a lot of work still ahead.”

CEO Bill Marrazzo said management accepted the results and was ready to start negotiating with the new union.

“From my perspective, this isn’t going to change our commitment to continue to grow and sustain the organization. It’s a tough media marketplace and we’ve had a great run so far, and I look forward to collective bargaining to keep that going,” Marrazzo said.

“Our goal over the last couple of weeks is to try to give our employees an opportunity to make an informed selection about organizing a union. We did a pretty good job of it, and the results are clear.”

Union organizers first petitioned for voluntary recognition on October 2, presenting management with cards in support of the union signed by more than 80 percent of the proposed members. When WHYY declined to recognize the union, SAG-AFTRA petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to schedule an election.

Marrazzo said WHYY does not oppose or support unionization but wanted to assist employees who had questions about the union drive.

“The principal reason for not voluntarily accepting the union was directly related to the number of employees here who expressed concern about it,” he said. “There were other employees who wanted to know more about the meaning of becoming union. Within the limits of the NLRB regulations, we tried to do our best to educate and inform everyone so they could make a good personal decision for themselves.”

SAG-AFTRA proposed an 88-member bargaining unit to be made up of employees who create content for WHYY’s TV channel, radio station, and website, including its PlanPhilly and Billy Penn sites. Management wants the union to represent fewer employees, arguing that nine types of jobs listed in the union petition do not meet the definition of content creators. The question of whether employees in those positions will be in the union remains to be resolved, said Art Ellis, WHYY vice president for communications and member relations.

Either side may file objections over the conduct of the election with the NLRB within 7 days, in which case the agency’s regional director Dennis Walsh could order an investigation and hearings. If there are no objections he will certify the election results.

A committee representing the newly unionized employees will then begin discussing the terms of a contract with WHYY management, which is required by law to negotiate in good faith about wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. Negotiation can be a lengthy process; employees at public radio station WBUR in Boston unionized in February and have yet to sign a contract.

The petitioning employees at WHYY have said they want to negotiate salaries and promotions. They contend that lagging pay rates have led to an exodus of talented employees seeking better opportunities elsewhere. They also want more control over work schedules, greater transparency from managers and a bigger role in decision-making.

After the employees presented their initial petition, WHYY management questioned whether SAG-AFTRA membership was the best way for employees to address workplace issues. Managers later scheduled meetings with employees to discuss the union drive. The meetings had an “anti-union theme of sowing division,” the union organizers wrote on Twitter.

WHYY told members that they may be required to pay dues, that promises by the union are not guaranteed outcomes, that a future contract could offer lesser benefits than workers currently have, and that negotiations could take a year or longer, according to a management letter to employees that the union posted on Twitter.

Ellis defended the meetings and messages to employees.

“We felt we had an obligation to share information with all employees – both those eligible to be in SAG-AFTRA and everyone else – about how the unionization process could impact individuals and the organization. We always said each employee is free to choose how to vote,” he said in an email.

Other public radio and TV outlets where employees are represented by SAG-AFTRA include National Public Radio, WNYC, MPR in St. Paul, WBEZ in Chicago, KUOW in Seattle, KPCC in Pasadena, and KQED in San Francisco.

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