By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor
There’s labor trouble brewing at Portland’s KGW-TV and Seattle’s KING-TV. The two NBC affiliates are among 46 local television stations owned by media company Gannett, which also owns USA Today and the Statesman-Journal in Salem, Oregon. In bargaining with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) over new union contracts at KGW and KING, Gannett is pushing an exotic proposal: Getting rid of the clause on union jurisdiction.
We’ve been struggling for months to get an explanation as to why this is all of a sudden necessary.” — union attorney John Bishop
“They would be able to bring anyone in to do our jobs, and you couldn’t prevent that,” said Brad Anderson, executive director of SAG-AFTRA in Seattle.
“We’ve been struggling for months to get an explanation as to why this is all of a sudden necessary,” said attorney John Bishop, who was brought in to assist Portland-based IBEW Local 48 in negotiations.
Gannett has already eliminated the union jurisdiction clause in a SAG-AFTRA contract at television station WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., and pushed it so hard in bargaining at KSDK-TV in St. Louis that members of IBEW Local 4 launched an ongoing boycott of their employer 10 months ago, using billboard and radio ads, an airplane banner, and a web site and Facebook page to call on viewers to stop watching.
According to Gannett’s most recent annual report, about 10 percent of its U.S. employees are represented by unions, divided among 78 bargaining units and eight international unions.
In Portland and Seattle, IATSE, IBEW and SAG-AFTRA are joining forces to fight Gannett, though they continue to bargain separately for contracts at the two stations. KGW and KING became Gannett properties when the company acquired Belo Corporation in 2013. IATSE represents camera operators and video editors. SAG-AFTRA represents on-camera staff. IBEW Locals 48 and 46 represent master control operators and maintenance technicians.
“We’re all in this together,” said IBEW Local 48 business rep Donna Hammond.
IATSE Local 600 representative Dave Twedell says Gannett is pushing other issues besides jurisdiction. It’s also proposing to eliminate the “successor” clause that keeps the union contract in effect if the company sells the station. And in January, it unilaterally worsened the family health insurance coverage — raising the employee share of the premium from $250 to $475 a month, and increasing the deductible from $1,500 to $5,000 a year.
That’s despite the fact that Gannett is highly profitable. Gannett’s broadcast revenue set a new record in the fourth quarter of 2014. The company paid CEO Gracia Martore $7.9 million in total compensation in 2013. And on Feb. 24 Gannett announced it will pay $45 million in quarterly dividends.
Twedell said IATSE will fight the health care change with an unfair labor practice charge at the National Labor Relations Board.
Union reps say they won’t agree to give up jurisdiction, but management hasn’t budged from its demand that they do.
“We have every reason to believe this is going to be their final proposal as well as initial, first of all because that’s what they told us,” Twedell said.
That sets the ground for a standoff, and the allied unions are beginning to line up outside backing for a public campaign. Last month the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, AFL-CIO, passed a resolution of support.
The labor clash comes as Gannett prepares to spin off its newspaper and broadcast/digital divisions into separate publicly- traded companies, a move that has drawn interest from corporate raider Carl Icahn, who owns 6.6 percent of Gannett stock.