Strong signal

Mention the word union, and the image that typically surfaces is that of an autoworker on the assembly line, a Teamster or a construction tradesman. Because of the long and bitter strike in Detroit during the 1990s, organized labor and the newspaper business have strong links. And then there are groups such as Janitors for Justice, which is making headlines as the service sector continues to unionize in ever greater numbers.

What may not leap immediately to mind is that the voice coming over your car radio during the morning commute might also bear the union label. But in Detroit and around the country, that is increasingly the case as broadcasters and technical crews are voting to become union shops.

Last August, Detroit Metro/ Shadow employees, a subsidiary of Westwood One that provides news, traffic and sports reports to radio and television stations in more than 80 U.S. cities, voted to join the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. In January, sportscasters, producers and talk-show hosts at WXYT-AM 1270 voted to become AFTRA members. Two months later, technical employees at WXYT and its sister Infinity Broadcasting Corp. station, WWJ-AM 950, went union as well.

What’s going on?

One reason, according to AFTRA, is that the union has stepped up its organizing efforts. Since the mid-1990s, membership in the union, which represents journalists, performers, artists and technical workers in the news and entertainment industries, has seen its membership increase from 70,000 to 80,000.

“We’ve been working very hard with the broadcasting community, particularly in radio,” says Kim Roberts, associate national executive director. Along with the recent victories in Detroit, during the past year the station has won elections at stations in Boston and New York.

Union psychology

But all the organizing efforts in the world won’t be successful if workers aren’t receptive to the idea of unionization.

“It’s really management that organizes unions,” says Michael Whitty, a labor-relations professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. When workers feel alienated from management and mistrust it, he explains, the seeds for unionization are sown.

Union supporters say that one reason radio stations are particularly ripe — especially news and sports stations that are locally oriented and have the largest staffs — is a direct ramification of the consolidation that has occurred in the industry as a result of federal deregulation implemented during the 1990s.

Put simply, more and more power is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands — and workers feel threatened by that. “People think unions are all about wages and working conditions,” observes Whitty. “But at the root of it are psychological factors.”

The management side of industry isn’t eager to discuss the phenomenon. The National Association of Broadcasters did not return calls seeking comment. Dana McClintock, vice president of communications for Infinity, says from his New York office that he has little to offer on the subject.

“We respect the right of workers to organize,” he tells Metro Times. “Other than that, we’re not going to negotiate this issue in the press.”

The Detroit market illustrates the tangled nature of broadcasting in the 21st century. Both WWJ and WXYT are owned by Infinity, a subsidiary of CBS. It merged with Viacom in 2000 to become the second-largest media conglomerate in the world. Infinity also manages Westwood One Radio Network, which bought the Metro/Shadow Network in 1999. The situation here reflects the scene nationwide; workers are apprehensive that corporate control of the industry is concentrated in the hands of a few media giants.

“Consolidation has increased the sense of insecurity among employees,” says AFTRA’s Roberts. “More and more individuals working in the broadcast industry recognize the importance of collective bargaining. There is strength in numbers. With a union, you have an advocate who can speak on your behalf, and you have more rights and protections with a union than you would without one.”

The sound of solidarity

Jayne Bower worked to get her station unionized because she got pissed off. An anchor at all-news WWJ, Bower came to Detroit in 1994 from a union shop in Los Angeles. There was a time, she says, when all the stations in Detroit were unionized. But station by station the employees, feeling organized representation was no longer necessary, began to decertify. When Bower arrived in town, there was no union presence in her industry here.

“There was a time,” she says, “when people were perfectly happy being nonunion.”

But in 1996, WWJ became the first local station to reverse the trend when reporters, hosts and producers voted to unionize. Bower led the effort. What motivated her was a pay-equity issue. “I found out that the male co-anchor I was working with was making 50 percent more than I was.”

Although AFTRA has no bearing on what sort of pay high-profile on-air personalities negotiate, the pay discrepancy, she says, made her realize that “employees need a voice.” So she contacted AFTRA, and an organizing drive began. It wasn’t easy. “The company fought us tooth and nail,” she recalls.

It wasn’t just management that caused organizers problems. Some employees were opposed to unionization. Jeff Gilbert was one of them.

Changing sides

When he arrived at WWJ from Pittsburgh in the 1990s, Gilbert, although appearing on-air as part of his job, held a management position. By the time the union vote came in ’96, he’d given up his management role. But he wasn’t eager to embrace the union.

“Generally speaking,” he says, “I thought things were pretty good. And, as someone who had been in management, I think there was some legitimate concern about unions being one more buffer between you and your workers.”

Now, Gilbert says he’s done a “total 180.”

The reason for his conversion, he explains, can be summed up in one word: benefits.

When AFTRA began organizing at WWJ, CBS owned the station and the benefit package was “wonderful.” But with the mergers and buyouts, the quality of the pension plan eroded and the quality of the health-care package declined. During that time, though, he’s seen how collective bargaining has helped employees negotiate better pension and health-care packages.

As for Bower, she’s become almost evangelic. As a union steward, she’s involved in negotiating contracts she says employees could never get were they dealing with the bosses singly.

And because of that success, employees at other stations in the area are making contact, expressing an interest to organize as well.

“Broadcasters are jumping on board because they feel they are being swallowed up by these billion-dollar corporations that own us all, and that the only way for us to have a strong voice is to join together,” Bower says.

“I started getting into this because I was pissed off, and wanted to so something about it. Now I find myself being an advocate for people I work with, and I wouldn’t not do it for anything. It has become a part of who I am.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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