Some ‘NewsHour’ Staffers Seeking Union Representation
Despite an increased audience, not all is roses at public TV’s “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.”
A pending bid by some of its writers, producers and reporters for union representation worries the program’s co-anchor, Jim Lehrer.
“Frankly, we are stunned by this,” he said Monday by phone from Washington when asked about current efforts of off-camera staffers at the program to be represented by the Writers Guild of America, which also represents some CBS News employees.
Lehrer said he thought that the unionization sought by “NewsHour” staff members would greatly constrain the program’s daily work by raising costs as much as 30%, and also “cramp our style.”
“In our mind set, we thought this to be such a wonderful place to work that we never dreamed it was a place for a union, but obviously we were wrong,” Lehrer said.
About 40 staff members are eligible to join the guild. Although the program’s management strongly objects to the proposal to unionize them, a vote on union representation will be taken at the New York and Washington offices of “NewsHour” on Sept. 18 and 19.
The program operates within the confines of public television, with a limited, fixed annual budget of $20 million, and with most staff members receiving much lower salaries than their counterparts at the commercial networks. Job responsibilities also are much more loosely defined.
Lehrer and his longtime partner Robert MacNeil produce as well as co-anchor the program for public television. Like its other on-air correspondents, they are members of a union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
Conceding “mistakes” and “miscommunications,” Lehrer said that “we have given so much attention to what we do every night, editorially, that matters of salaries and related policies have fallen through the cracks. But we feel these problems can be solved with better communication and without the intervention of a union.”
A New York staff member, who is among those seeking Guild representation, said Monday that “we are seeking a voice in matters of salary, promotions and work conditions, and to be represented in the way that on-air and technical people are represented.
“We’re seeking a flexible contract rather than one with strict rules,” added the staff member, who asked not to be identified. “Flexibility is why many of us have chosen to work here, instead of the networks.”
According to the staff member, the union proposal has been “simmering” for some time. “Many of us have approached management individually with our grievances, but, cumulatively, we feel they have not been adequately addressed.”
The staff member said disgruntled staffers approached the guild this summer, and several weeks ago formally petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold the election that now has been scheduled.
“This is a very special place to work,” the staff member emphasized. “We love Robin (MacNeil) and Jim, and there is incredible loyalty, affection and respect. They keep saying they want us to be a family, and we want to feel like a family, but this family has grown very large.
“While all the attention was being paid to the program, many of our longstanding gripes have been ignored.”