WHYY staffers file for union election

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

WHYY management has ruled out voluntarily recognizing a proposed union after employees said they have asked the National Labor Relations Board to supervise a unionization vote. 

The decision begins a process by which both sides will try to show WHYY employees what unionization with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) would mean versus remaining non-union. The union says 80 percent of employees in the proposed bargaining unit have signed cards indicating support for unionization.

The NLRB filing “resolves the issue of how we should proceed,” Art Ellis, WHYY’s vice president of communications and member relations, said in a written statement late Friday. “WHYY respects the right of our employees to be represented by a union and wants to ensure that all employees will be able to make an educated decision on this issue.”

“We look forward to working with our employees through this process to discuss the issues being raised, including some that came up in our recent employee survey. We welcome a dialogue with our employees about what union representation would mean for them, for managers and for WHYY as an institution,” Ellis said.

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The WHYY union organizing committee said they filed with the federal agency because WHYY management had not responded to a request to accept their membership in SAG-AFTRA.

“We asked for voluntary recognition on Wednesday and have yet to receive an answer from management,” the committee members said in an email. “We decided to use the channels available to us to continue moving things forward. We are still open to voluntary recognition.”

Ellis had said earlier that managers want to discuss with employees whether SAG-AFTRA affiliation is “the most beneficial way” to address employee concerns.

The union committee is seeking to represent nearly 85 content creators for both broadcast and digital operations at WHYY. They want to negotiate over pay, advancement, professional development opportunities, work schedules, transparency and organizational decision-making.

Susan Schurman, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, said opposing the SAG-AFTRA affiliation may not be management’s best option, given the apparent strong support among employees.

“My advice to the management would be to do voluntary recognition, and then to sit down and negotiate and listen,” said Schurman, a former AFL-CIO official who mediated the merger negotiations that created SAG-AFTRA in 2011. “This is an industry in which both the station management and the workers have probably more in common than not, and they should try to adopt what we call a ‘win-win’ approach to negotiations.”

“If 80 percent of people signed that they want to join (the union), it’s not going to go away. It means they are very likely to win the certification campaign. If the employer wants to take it to an election, their only option is to campaign against it, and that will turn it very ugly and will be very bad for their public image. Think about who listens to NPR,” she said.

Journalists and labor advocates offered encouragement for the proposed WHYY union after the announcement Wednesday. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney responded that his administration “stands firmly behind workers everywhere.”

“Happy to see the hardworking journalists, producers, and on-air talent of WHYY take the brave step of forming a union,” he wrote on Twitter.

WHYY would be the latest of several large-market public media outfits to see its employees join the Los Angeles-based SAG-AFTRA. The union’s roughly 160,000 members include media professionals such as actors, singers, broadcast journalists, puppeteers, and stunt performers.

In February, journalists at WBUR in Boston voted overwhelming to join SAG-AFTRA after the station management declined to accept a petition signed by 80 percent of employees. Employees of KUOW in Seattle joined last year. The union represents workers at National Public Radio, WNYC, MPR in St. Paul, WBEZ in Chicago, KPCC in Pasadena, and KQED in San Francisco.

Journalists at several high-profile media organizations have unionized in the last two years, including Vox Media, Buzzfeed, The Onion, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. Schurman attributed the wave of union activity to unstable work environments in an industry that has been buffeted by technological change, downsizing, consolidation, and the rise of new competitors.

Schurman said the WHYY unionization push also reflects SAG-AFTRA’s approach of increasing its membership by actively recruiting non-unionized entertainment and information industry workers.

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