WHYY reporters, producers form union, ask for voluntary recognition

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

Reporters, producers, program hosts and other employees at WHYY asked for recognition as a union on Wednesday.

The proposed bargaining unit includes close to 100 workers at the NPR- and PBS-affiliated public media outlet. More than 80% of those workers signed on to a petition asking management to voluntarily recognize a union formed with Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the group said. 

“WHYY has become a bastion of Philadelphia journalism at a time when local media institutions have collapsed across the country. Yet over and over, talented employees leave due to untenable working conditions. We want to be able to stay and build our careers at WHYY without sacrificing our well-being,” the petitioners said in a message on Twitter.

The union would include content creators at WHYY-FM, WHYY TV and the organization’s website, along with some employees who coordinate events, but would not include managers.

WHYY management did not immediately agree to the request. “We respect the rights of our employees to engage in this process and look forward to discussing with them whether the most beneficial way to do this is through SAG-AFTRA,” said Art Ellis, WHYY’s vice president of communications and member relations, in a written statement. 

“WHYY has a distinguished group of journalists and other content producers who serve our audience with trusted news, information, arts, culture and education content. We are confident that all will continue to support our audiences’ needs as we work through this process,” the statement continued.

The petitioners said if WHYY does not offer voluntary recognition, the employees and SAG-AFTRA will ask the National Labor Relations Board to oversee a formal vote by employees to form the union.

In an email, the petitioners said they were “disappointed but frankly not surprised that management has chosen not to voluntarily recognize our union.” WHYY sent its statement to the press before disclosing the decision to employees, which is “just another sign that more transparency and accountability are needed,” they said. “We are prepared to file with the NLRB and win.” 

The union drive follows a wave of similar efforts at news outlets across the country, including Vox Media, BuzzFeed and the Los Angeles Times. Some organizing attempts have been met with resistance. BuzzFeed News staffers staged a walkout earlier this year before the company agreed to recognize the union voluntarily. 

SAG-AFTRA already represents journalists and other staff at National Public Radio, WNYC, and a number of other regional public media stations.

The move also comes amid a continuing crisis for newspapers and other media partially driven by advertisers shifting focus from print to the internet since the early 2000s. The Philadelphia Inquirer has conducted multiple rounds of buyouts, and in July, top management there said the paper could be overwhelmed by debt and fail within five years.

By contrast, public media has been relatively stable or even grown in recent years. WHYY’s news operation has expanded with the launch of a podcast, The Why, and the acquisitions of PlanPhilly and Billy Penn. But people familiar with WHYY’s newsroom say pay rates and other factors have contributed to continuing staff turnover nonetheless.

 “In past years, I produced, reported, and worked on long-term projects with @WHYY and was always sad to see a steady stream of amazing, talented reporters and producers leave for better conditions elsewhere,” independent producer Alex Lewis wrote on Twitter Wednesday. 

The petition organizers at WHYY said in their message that they are seeking “fair compensation; opportunities for advancement and professional development; predictable and reasonable work schedules; (and) transparency and a meaningful say in the decisions that affect the direction of our work and our station.” 

One persistent grievance surrounds WHYY CEO Bill Marrazzo’s salary, which reached $842,000 in 2016. That’s higher than the top salary at any other NPR-affiliate other than WNYC, where the station budget is more than twice as large. Marrazzo earned $762,010 in 2018, as per WHYY documentation.

Editor’s Note: This story was written and edited by non-WHYY staff.

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