Alex Beam

Contractual issues

WGBH and its 280 CWA union members are definitely not on the same channel

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / February 18, 2011

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Union busting at WGBH? How will that play during Pledge Week?

Labor-management relations at the World’s Greatest Broadcast House are sinking quicker than PBS ratings. At the end of October, management declined to extend its contract with the 280 members of the Communications Workers of America Local 1300, and now seems bent on putting the pesky communards out of business. A federal mediator has been called in, and doesn’t seem to be helping. This isn’t Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood anymore.

It’s ’GBH president Mr. Jon Abbott’s neighborhood now, and the tip of his anti-union spear is executive vice president Ben Godley, a former top staffer to doomed presidential wannabe Mitt Romney. Ironies abound. Abbott’s predecessor, Henry Becton (who still gets $150,000 a year from ’GBH, by the way), helped form the station’s first union more than 30 years ago. And it’s certainly ironical that a Romnik is calling the shots at ’GBH, where the default political orientation lines up nicely with the Petrograd Soviet.

“That is such an obvious story line, ‘Romney guy pursues anti-union agenda,’ ’’ Godley says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.’’

What’s going on? When the last CWA contract expired on Halloween, it became clear that ’GBH management didn’t want to fiddle around with salaries and benefits. Godley & Co. wanted a top-to-bottom rewrite of the whole deal, pushing for more outsourcing, and more flexibility in reassigning staffers, among other things. There was a case to be made. For decades, ’GBH has been known as a “velvet coffin,’’ a great place to work, especially if you don’t want to work too hard, with generous salaries and benefits, and no small amount of union featherbedding.

Furthermore, money is short in public broadcasting and likely to become shorter, if the House Republicans have anything to say about it. And money is especially short at ’GBH, which cruised along for years, flush with cash from endless, snoozer series from the Ken Burns school of molasses-paced broadcasting.

“We have a looming deficit. We have to make cuts every year to balance the budget,’’ Godley says. “Most of the shows on TV are made by independent producers, and they work very differently. We have a 40-year-old contract, and we have to hire more people than everybody else to produce the same type of work.’’

When management opted not to extend the contract, they also eliminated the union’s payroll dues checkoff. This seems like a small thing, but it’s a big thing. Previously, ’GBH was collecting union dues from every salaried staffer and handing it over to the CWA. Now, the union has to collect dues on its own, and — surprise! — some staffers don’t want to pay. “We consider it an attempt to bankrupt us,’’ says “All Things Considered’’ host Jordan Weinstein, president of Local 1300.

Weinstein says “the majority’’ of eligible staffers are paying the dues, for now. Why is this important? Because down the line, ’GBH management could ask for proof that most staffers were voluntarily paying their dues. If most weren’t, management could seek to decertify the union.

Disclosure: I am a CWA member. Like ’GBH, the Globe is a so-called closed shop, meaning that non-management staffers have to belong to the union. We’ve had our share of labor woes, and have worked without a contract for years at a time. We’ve never had to use a federal mediator, and management has never cut off the union’s financial lifeline, the dues checkoff.

There is plenty more to argue about over at ’GBH’s ruinously expensive new headquarters in Brighton. The CWA took heat for insisting on a 3.5 percent pay increase when media drones (like me!) were taking pay cuts all over America, or losing their jobs. Weinstein points to more than $200,000 of management bonuses awarded during the same time period. Separately, management wants an “artistic discretion termination’’ provision in a new contract, which means sacking on-air talent without recourse. Huh? Somebody doesn’t like Emily Rooney’s dress, they toss her off the air? I wouldn’t want that in my contract. “This is standard in every labor agreement,’’ Godley insists.

There are two negotiating sessions scheduled for next week. Godley is talking Contract-ageddon: “We’re getting close to the end,’’ he says. “We’ll have to look at our options.’’ Weinstein expects management to make a “last and best’’ final offer, which Local 1300 will have to vote on. If the union votes no, management could declare an impasse, and selectively impose the terms of its final offer, Weinstein says. “That would be the nuclear option.’’

Stay tuned, as it were.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is

Correction: Because of reporting errors, this column mischaracterized two labor relations matters at The Boston Globe. The Globe does not have a “closed shop,’’ and a federal mediator has been used on occasion in negotiations with its unions.