Chicago broadcast workers picketed a landmark block of North Michigan Avenue yesterday, saying NBC is trying to change their job descriptions and eliminate unionized workers.
The workers — camera operators, video editors and technicians from several of city's major broadcast affiliates — paced between East Illinois Street and the Chicago River. They carried signs that read "NBC is Bad News for Its Workers," and asked pedestrians to sign pledges not to watch Channel 5, the broadcaster's WMAQ affiliate.
Their union, Local 41 of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, part of the Communications Workers of America, claims that NBC bosses are trying to turn the workers into managers and cut union-negotiated compensation such as overtime pay.
The job changes would come as traditional media companies try to cut costs to cope with a bitter economy, dwindling advertisers and challenges from new, more nimble rivals on the Internet.
"I understand the changing dynamic in television news. I understand the challenges that the news business is facing," says Charlie Braico, vice president of the local broadcast union. "But what we believe NBC is doing here is trying to break the union."
NBC Chicago spokeswoman Toni Falvo e-mailed me yesterday with a statement on the dispute.
"It’s difficult to comment on something that hasn't happened," Falvo wrote, "but as always, we remain open to continuing our discussions with NABET at the bargaining table."
Union leaders confirmed that NBC and NABET are still negotiating a new contract for the 202 Chicago workers, most of whom are hired on a daily basis for occasional work. The union's last contract, negotiated in 2006, expired in March, according to organizers.
But Braico challenged Falvo's statement that the changes have not happened.
"The reality is that they've posted the jobs. They've taken applications. They plan to start implementing the new program at the end of the month or at the beginning of next month," he says. "They're already engaged."
Ozie Baldwin, a news photographer, editor and live technician at NBC Chicago, says the company told many employees that to keep their jobs, they would need to reapply for new positions — positions for which they often had little training or previous experience.
"No one knew what the criteria was for who was selected," Baldwin says. "For me, it's an issue of basic fairness."
Those selected for the new jobs will no longer be covered by the union contract, he says.
"The whole strategy behind it was to eliminate the union," Baldwin says. "We're yet to hear about managers or middle managers losing their jobs."
Ray Taylor, president of the union, says NABET filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in February, after NBC told employees about the changes in January. He says he expects a decision by next month.