In The News
Dispute with TMJ4 goes to NLRB and the streets
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
On the eighth day of the eighth month in the eighth year of the new century (8.08.08), WTMJ wasn’t just broadcasting the opening of the Olympics -- it was vaulting its own management into competition for the Bad Boss gold medal.
That day, broadcast engineers, stagehands and other Journal Communications workers and sympathizers lined Capitol Drive in front of the WTMJ studios with banners asking “Trust TMJ4? If we can’t why should you?”
During the lunch hour of the all-day informational picketing and sympathetic solidarity, fully 7 out of 10 cars and trucks passing on the busy thoroughfare honked in support of the unions.
While the NBC affiliate was telling the story of the Beijing Olympics on the air, the Milwaukee workers were at least gaining street attention for a story unlikely to get play in the major print and media outlets the company controls and indeed dominates in Milwaukee. It’s hard to tell bad boss stories when your own boss has the veto, even though the experienced broadcast engineers you rely on continued to get your narrower preferences on the air. (Rival station Channel 12 did show up to continue it inroads in the TV market by doing local stories on workers.)
The tale the public wasn’t told involves imperial unilateral action not by the Chinese government but by Journal Broadcast Group management. It created what the workers allege to federal authorities are clear violations of the law and, on any level, a “spit in the face” to dedicated workers.
The charges go beyond the unfair practices often filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Immediate injunctive relief is being sought by the lawyer for both unions involved, Mark Sweet.
Without commercial interruption, here is the unfolding story.
The Wisconsin Broadcast Engineers, IBEW Local 715, are a pioneer local that has served from the earliest days of radio-TV expansion as the technical backbone of media here. The Journal company had been employing 44 of them at WTMJ-TV, WTMJ-DT, WTMJ-AM and WKTI-FM.
The local began negotiations with the Journal last December on a new contract but suddenly faced sweeping demands that would either eliminate or drastically change employment -– in effect demolish a famous and traditionally supportive union.
Such as dispute was an unusual turnaround in 70 years of successful successor bargaining agreements with Journal Communications, but this time, negotiators say, the company seemed determined to follow a script outlined by its lawyers from the Michael Best firm.
That concern deepened in the spring when the Journal declared an impasse despite IBEW’s willingness and experience in negotiating and then sought to merge the broadcast engineers with another veteran union -- Stagehands Local 18, the same IATSE division employing currently hundreds to put up the Harley events.
But Local 18 had a signed contract with WTMJ – and that along with other aspects of WTMJ’s demands were against the law, Sweet argues in his complaint to the NLRB.
The dispute reflects to the workers the sort of arrogance of management that really is designed to break down mutual bargaining even as Congress is anxious for a changing of guard at the White House that would allow new laws to make the playing field more equal between labor and management.
A lot of such preemptive effort to beat the voters to the punch is going around, noted Christopher Albrecht, president and business manager of Local 715. If the company wanted to explore cross-training and can present evidence of financial benefit, he noted, that is what collective bargaining is all about.
Instead Journal management is tampering with existing contracts and practices by unilaterally implementing a merger of two distinct bargaining units, noted Albrecht.
“Its goals of driving down wages and the solidarity of its employees are very transparent -- tactics that can only be described as underhanded and dishonest, “he said.
The complaints to the NLRB on behalf of both the engineers and stagehands also name Journal management, including Vice President of News Bill Berra and Tony Lucas, manager of news production.
The unions are also telling their story and updating their initiatives at their own website: www.whytrusttmj4.com.
But don’t look for a link in the major newspaper.