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Ninety-four employees at WBUR, an NPR affiliate in Boston, filed notice Tuesday of their intent to form a union, according to staff organizers. The radio and multimedia producers, reporters, hosts and editors say they represent 80 percent of station staff members who create content online and for the radio.
A petition presented to leaders at WBUR and its owner, Boston University, asks the station and school to recognize the union and agree to begin contract negotiations.
“As WBUR grows and changes, we hope to foster a culture in which workers feel safe, trusted and appreciated, where our ideas are recognized and our concerns are respected,” the petition reads. “We are organizing to have a collective voice in that process.”
WBUR employees involved in the union effort say the petition was not accepted by WBUR General Manager Charlie Kravetz and BU Director of Labor Relations Judi Burgess.
The employees say they would be represented by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), a union that includes actors, dancers, DJs and broadcast journalists. SAG-AFTRA represents journalists at NPR in Washington, D.C., and at several large NPR member stations, such as WNYC in New York, WBEZ in Chicago and KQED in San Francisco.
On Monday evening, Kravetz and Gary Nicksa, BU senior vice president of operations, issued a statement:
We share many of the workplace goals and aspirations raised in the letter given to us today by the WBUR Organizing Committee and have been actively engaged in addressing the Committee’s concerns. Because of that common ground, we are asking the staff to continue this conversation with us for a period of time, and see what we can do together, before seeking to affiliate with SAG-AFTRA. We hope they agree.
BU has known about the union petition for at least several days, and issued a memo late last week to WBUR managers with guidance about how to respond to union organizing.
“The journalists and content providers who have chosen to work at WBUR are among the best, most creative, thoughtful and imaginative people in this field,” Bob Oakes, host of WBUR’s Morning Edition for more than 25 years, said in a statement. “They deserve to be treated in a manner befitting the professionalism they bring to that dedication. Affiliating with SAG-AFTRA will prove immeasurably helpful in helping the staff work with management to ensure that work life at WBUR is fair and equitable for all.”
Union organizers at WBUR say they began discussions about forming a union in August, in the midst of a turbulent year at the station. Tom Ashbrook, who hosted the daily syndicated talk show On Point, was dismissed in February after an investigation concluded he’d created “an abusive work environment.” A consulting firm conducted employee interviews and a survey through the spring and delivered a report to BU in June that was not made public. In September, BU released a summary and recommendations from the report that highlighted morale, communication and accountability concerns. It called for “substantive action to improve the station’s climate.”
Some employees say they are frustrated with what they call the slow pace of any substantive action. A steering committee focused on station culture has met twice. A consultant that the report recommended assist in implementing changes at WBUR has not been hired, nor has a station human resources person, although station managers say both are in progress. A memo from Kravetz and BU leaders last week to station staff said Kravetz has met with each department to identify issues of concern. The memo says they are developing a recommended station organizational chart and are reviewing pay equity.
WBUR union organizers say wide differences in pay between employees doing the same or similar jobs would be a top issue to address in a contract at WBUR. Another goal is to end the practice of filling jobs with freelancers who are kept on for months or years in some cases without what union organizers describe as full benefits or job security.
Union supporters at the station say managers have made changes in the past few months and deserve credit for doing so.
“We want to work alongside them and not against them,” said WBUR digital producer Ally Jarmanning, one of a dozen employees who launched the union organizing effort. “We view this as a tool to make sure we have a meaningful voice in our working conditions, and hope management views this as a positive and collaborative step.”
Editor’s note: WBUR’s Martha Bebinger reported this story, and WBUR’s Benjamin Swasey and Dan Mauzy are the story editors. Under standard practices for reporting on WBUR, no other BU or WBUR staff were allowed to review the story before publication.
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