Hollywood avoided potential strikes this year by writers and talent, but NPR may not be so lucky. With just one more day of talks scheduled in Washington on an already expired contract between SAG-AFTRA and the radio network, the union contends that management is trying to disempower the union altogether by demanding rollbacks, instituting a two-tier salary system and eliminating the union's ability to enforce various contract clauses through arbitration.
All of this comes at a time of record ratings, financial stability and successful product development (podcasts, etc.) for NPR, according to the union. SAG-AFTRA, and before it AFTRA, has represented NPR producers and on-air journalists for about 40 years. The existing contract expired June 30 but has been extended through Friday.
"Absent an 11th-hour change, the company is planning to offer us an odious contract," read an email that the union negotiating committee sent to the approximately 430 members of the bargaining unit Tuesday night. "The company is setting up a bitter choice for us."
That choice may be whether to seek a strike authorization vote from the bargaining unit. "I wouldn't be surprised to see a vote," said All Things Considered producer Becky Sullivan, a member of the negotiating committee. "We haven't ruled anything out."
Management has a different perspective. Calling the talks "productive," an NPR spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter, "Our goal is to make this organization economically sustainable for the long-term — and, importantly, enable NPR to invest more resources in expanding audiences, innovating its multiplatform journalism, and adding newsroom staff to meet that growth and support current staff."
Said NPR film critic Bob Mondello, "The mind reels — or rather unspools. NPR's audience is up and its revenues high because of the uniquely creative work we do, and management wants to reward us by gutting our contract. If this were a movie, who'd believe that?"
A letter to NPR president-CEO Jarl Mohn by about 35 NPR journalists, including Robert Siegel, accused the company of trying "to in effect rip up" the union agreement.
A federal mediator was called in but so far has apparently been unable to bridge the gap between the parties. A union decision on seeking a strike authorization could come as early as Friday night.
In an interview, Sullivan said that throughout the negotiations, management was "looking for things they can weaken," including eliminating grievance and arbitration provisions for a dozen or so contract clauses, and setting up a two-tier salary system that would divide newcomers from existing staff and force new hires to bargain individually with management to achieve union-level wages.
That would disproportionately affect the diversity of the newsroom, she said, by making NPR less attractive for potential new hires. Meanwhile, Sullivan expressed bafflement as to why management is taking a harder line than in the preceding talks two years ago.
"Our listenership has been through the roof [and] we're hitting all these crazy records," she said. "The bargaining unit is really getting freaked out" by the company's positions.
NPR's negotiating team is led by Jones Day partner Trish Dunn, former vp labor for The Washington Post. Her office referred inquiries to an NPR spokesperson, who issued the statement above.
Sullivan said that management came into the negotiations with 150 separate proposals, a startling number for a contract that only runs to about 40 pages. She said that the union had only a dozen initial proposals. The union salary scale for the unit is between about $45,000 to the low $100,000 range, according to Sullivan.
The letter to Mohn focused directly on the union contract, saying "NPR has become great partly because of our labor-management contract. The contract has ensured proper working conditions, collaboration and collegiality, and an atmosphere of mutual respect. That culture is one of the main reasons we choose to work here. That culture attracts some of our youngest and newest talents, from diverse backgrounds."