WHYY union votes to approve its first contract

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

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

Unionized reporters and content creators at WHYY voted overwhelmingly in favor of their first contract with the public radio and TV broadcaster on Monday.

The vote was 71-2, with one member not voting. The three-year agreement covers 74 reporters, editors, producers, hosts, marketing specialists, and other staff, and includes employees who work at WHYY-TV, WHYY-FM radio, WHYY.org, PlanPhilly, and Billy Penn. They organized in October 2019 as a unit of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).

The contract sets minimum salaries by employee category, scales pay to seniority, and equalizes pay for workers with similar duties, union representatives said. It provides wage hikes of at least 2%, with more than half the employees receiving increases of at least 5%, they said.

Standardizing and increasing salaries was a priority for union negotiators, who said stagnant pay has contributed to 20 members leaving WHYY for jobs elsewhere since the start of the pandemic.

“With this contract, it’s an entirely new reality,” said health reporter Nina Feldman, a member of the union negotiating team. “There’s a guaranteed scaffolding that people can work their way up on. When you’re a young journalist, and you say, `What’s the future hold for me here at WHYY?’ you can look at that union wage scale and have a projected sense of a path forward.”

WHYY CEO William Marrazzo said the company recognized that WHYY’s relatively small size had provided few opportunities for promotions and pay hikes.

“This contract now provides, for the first time, wage growth tied to years of service, which I think is a real big improvement and will go some way, if not a very long way, to continuing to improve our retention of the best and brightest we are lucky enough to recruit into WHYY,” Marrazzo said.

The contract also grants six weeks of parental leave and formalizes the comp time policy, which the union says had been applied inconsistently. While not a negotiated issue, the company has delayed a required hybrid return to the office until October.

In a message to the staff, Marrazzo described the negotiation as “a long and at times quite challenging process, complicated by the pandemic,” but added that “anything worth doing well is hard to do.” He said management will go through the details of implementing the contract and certain new benefits that apply to all employees, including members of the SAG-AFTRA and IBEW unions and non-union staff.

The employees declared their intent to join SAG-AFTRA in October 2019. After management declined to voluntarily recognize the new union, the workers voted, 70-1, in a National Labor Relations Board-supervised election in favor of unionizing.

Mayor Jim Kenney and other elected officials applauded the effort, and the union ran a social media campaign that drew support from WHYY members and unionized journalists at other public media outlets around the country. In the final days of negotiations, the union encouraged WHYY members to email Marrazzo and the station’s board to ask them to put more resources toward the contract.

Marrazzo noted that the station had not furloughed any employees or reduced pay or benefits during the pandemic, and said covering the added costs of the new contract was “eminently doable.”

The NPR- and PBS-affiliated broadcaster has 127,000 members, a 5,000-member increase since 2019. Donations from members provide more than half of the station’s funding.

WHYY is among several public media organizations whose employees have recently joined Los Angeles-based SAG-AFTRA, a 160,000-member union of media professionals such as actors, singers, broadcast journalists, puppeteers, and stunt performers.

SAG-AFTRA members at WBUR in Boston and KUOW in Seattle ratified their first contracts in the last two years, and in December employees at WAMU in Washington, D.C., voted unanimously to join. The union also represents workers at National Public Radio, WNYC, MPR in St. Paul, WBEZ in Chicago, KPCC in Pasadena, and KQED in San Francisco.

Unionization at media companies generally has been on the upswing since 2015 as workers have sought to boost pay and benefits, professionalize working conditions at digital startups, and provide employees with protections as news organizations have consolidated, been acquired by hedge funds or private equity firms, and slashed worker headcounts.

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