Workers at the NPR-affiliated radio station WYPR are raising questions about the station’s policies in the wake of their failure to form a labor union. At the forefront: How does a station underwriter become an “employee” under labor law?
Last week a hearing officer at the National Labor Relations Board effectively ruled against several challenges union organizers made to the makeup of the proposed bargaining unit, and that left the union without enough votes to win the election.
“SAG-AFTRA is disappointed with the NLRB decision and we are considering our next steps,” a spokesperson for the union says in an email.
The union effort began this spring and employees told management they wanted an election on June 3.
Quietly after that, the two sides fought. Management announced that it was aware that many employees did not want a union, and then won the battle by including people in the bargaining unit that the union’s organizers did not want, or did not think were pro-union. Among these: Anirban Basu, who hosts the Morning Economic Report, and Hugh Sisson and Al Spoler, who host the wine show “Cellar Notes.”
Reached in Providence, Rhode Island, where he is selling beer as general partner of the Clipper City Brewing Company, Sisson says the union effort struck him “out of left field” when Spoler called and asked if he had heard anything about it. It was less than a week before the vote, he says.
“It was kind of awkward,” Sisson says. “I showed up to cast my vote, and there were all these super-serious people handling the process. I don’t know if they were pro- or anti-union.”
Sisson, who says he only goes to the station about once every six weeks to record his show, says he has no idea what the issues may have been for the full-time workers who organized the effort. He says his show’s producer, Bob White, always seemed happy.
“I was not a likely union voter,” Sisson says. “I was a little surprised when we were brought into the mix.”
Management also successfully challenged the union’s contention that Dan Rodricks and Sheilah Kast, who run their own shows on the station, were line workers eligible for union representation. Management contended—and the NLRB agreed—that both personalities were management because they had the effective power to hire people to work on their shows, Midday and Maryland Morning.
Before the seven challenges were hashed out, the vote count was nine for and 11 against the union. The final tally is unclear but the union side conceded defeat. The station’s general manager, Anthony Brandon, did not return messages, nor did the station’s program manger, Andy Bienstock, or the lawyer the station hired to handle the union, Laura A. Pierson-Scheinberg of Jackson Lewis, P.C., a national law firm that specializes in representing companies in disputes with employees trying to organize and has an article on its website titled “War is Hel...pful: Union Avoidance Training.”
The defeat left the pro-union employees unwilling to speak publicly, but several WYPR employees and former employees spelled out the problems, as they saw them. One is Brandon’s practice of favoring the station’s underwriters and the potential for conflicts of interest that created with the station’s news operation. Basu’s Sage Policy Group underwrites programming on the station, for example, as does David Warnock, who hosts the four-minute program “Baltimore’s Future” on Thursday mornings. Warnock is a founder and managing member of Camden Partners, a private equity firm with investments in medical, tech, and educational companies. He also funds a family foundation that puts out a magazine featuring young, entrepreneurial do-gooders like Adam Jackson, co-founder of the for-profit think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. Of Warnock, one WYPR staffer says, “he gives us money and we give him the microphone.”
Management tapped Basu to be part of the bargaining unit, but did not try to include Warnock. Neither Basu nor Warnock responded to messages from City Paper.
Management also wanted Elizabeth Tracey, who produces the Johns-Hopkins-underwritten “Medical Minute” each morning, to vote in the union election. In the end both sides stipulated that she was not a WYPR employee. Tracey is employed as Johns Hopkins’ Director of Electronic News Media. Her show is syndicated on Voice of America and is provided free to radio stations.
On its website, WYPR has posted the Public Media Code of Integrity, in which the station pledges in part to “Protect the editorial process from the fact and appearance of undue influence, exercising care in seeking and accepting funds and setting careful boundaries between contributors and content creators.”
The National Labor Relations Board did not respond to City Paper’s request to explain the rules under which a radio station’s underwriter was considered an employee.
Asked about WYPR’s alleged practice of “handing the microphone” to an underwriter, an NPR spokesperson had not responded at press time.
The radio station’s budget is about $5 million per year, according to its publicly available tax forms. A little more than half of that comes from underwriters. The station does not list on its website the underwriters or amounts contributed. As of the 2013 tax year the station had $3.9 million in bonded debt.
“This is a disappointing conclusion that reflects an imperfect process,” the WYPR Organizing Committee says in a statement sent via email. “When we started our union effort, we proposed a bargaining unit that included regular, full-time staff who produce WYPR’s programming. A majority of the full-time regular production and news staff still believe that our workplace and work product would be improved by collective bargaining.
“While we certainly think it’s important for employees to be compensated justly for their work, this was never the essential tenet of our grievances. We want to work at a radio station that values and prioritizes its locally produced content; that understands the importance of an effective firewall between commercial and editorial concerns; and where all staff feel empowered to raise legitimate concerns without fearing that we’ll be ignored, ostracized, or dismissed.
“We are disheartened by management’s decision to spend significant station resources to undermine our democratic effort. We hope they will commit as fully to making measurable improvements to the workplace and supporting the production staff. Because a public argument between staff and management could damage the reputation of WYPR and rattle the good faith of our valued listener/members, we will offer no further comment.”