Should television news photographers be represented by unions?

 


(Letters from the archives of PhotogsLounge.net)

David R. Busse KABC-TV Los Angeles, CA
“I must answer the question of the week with a resounding YES with a disclaimer. I am currently jobless, having been locked-out of my news photographer job at KABC-TV Los Angeles in a labor dispute that began right after Halloween. I’ve never been through a strike or lockout before. So I could tell you about all the great wages and benefits that ABC-TV has provided me over almost two decades, but I could also tell you what it’s like to suddenly have none of that…and to lose it as a result of the actions of some people in New York whom I have never met nor heard from, soliciting MY opionion of whether this job action is really necessary to achive a new contract.
However, I must say this. How many of you go to work every day and see the person who actually owns your TV station? Darn few of us do (I did 20 years ago at a station where employees were treated fairly with great respect). How many toil under situations where the management of the newsroom is a revolving door, with news directors and henchmen coming and going every few months? TV news is in a huge turmoil and the bean-counters are calling the shots like never before. With no union, you can forget any work rules or system of discipline that favor anyone except management. Wages? They’ll keep ‘em as low as they can, as long as there are piles of resumes and audition tapes hitting the door every day from hungry college grads who will work for anything just to get a foot in the door. And how many of the managers at your station have ever worked in the newsroom or (gak) been a news photographer? Think they really understand the demands of our job, anyway?
At the same time, there’s a stability of employment in a lot of newsrooms. In the old days, a good photog could get in a pissing contest with a new news director, quit, make a few phone calls and probably get hired immediately across town or in another market. There is not the turnover there once was, so people are staying “put.” With all this and more, I would consider my union dues “money well spent”…the dynamics of the business today make collective bargaining among TV news photographers a necessity. I had no choice of whether to join a union or be represented this way…the system was well in place when I joined ABC 18 years ago…but I am convinced that my standard of living is much higher than it would be without it. I am not a gung-ho activist, but the realities of the business make the union a necessity. ”


Chas Evans WAAY-TV Huntsville,AL
“I don’t believe that there’s any reason for unions to represent photogs. Let’s face reality… if you’re good, you’re good. Once upon a time, there may have been a need for unions. But, as businessess have learned, the best way to attract and maintain the best employees is to offer them the better salary and benefits than the competition. Unions only seem to excel at sucking their revenue from their members, then spending it on furthering their own agendas. Sure, management has the upper hand. Sure, I wish I could call the shots. But I didn’t invest the Millions it takes to run a station. If the station feels that I need less money or benefits than I agreed to upon my hire… there’s always the station across the street.


Anonymous in Texas
“I heard an interesting story today about a union incident, in either Chicago or Los Angeles. Apparently the unions think it is their prerogative to follow news units out to their stories. A recent crew was sent out to a scene where a parents’ child had been murdered. While the news crew was attempting to interview the grief stricken mother the unions started harassing both the family members and the news crews. The mother said something to the union guys only to be harassed some more. The family was taken over to a wall so the unions couldn’t be seen in the background but one union guy was able to stick his friggin’ sign in the back of the shot between the family and the wall. I also saw many pickets going out of their way to get in the shots of the NBA players a couple of days ago following the end of the lockout. I realize the majority of the union is most likely made of up hardworking, decent people. But why do so many have to make a complete ass out of themselves? I would be embarrassed if these morons were representing me out on the streets. And they wonder why management doesn’t want to deal with them? There has to be some sort of line drawn.
Most of the letters I’ve seen here tout the MONEY. Granted, all photogs aren’t going to retire early but if you don’t like your pay find another job. I often think how great I have it when I’m out on a story and see people who work a FULL 8 hour shift of hard, manual labor. You can’t tell me our jobs aren’t unique. Most union photogs don’t edit their stuff (and it often shows) and never have. I’ve never understood that either. I’ve seen their slop on the air in many of the major markets. I guess that’s what happens when you’re worried about that one hour lunch break coming up in 5 minutes. Again, I know the majority of unions are filled with hard working photogs who love their jobs. It’s the few who don’t (unions or not) that make the rest look bad. If you don’t like it–quit and stop bitching about it. “


Al Lozano KREM-TV Spokane, WA
“I think it’s a good idea for photojournalists to be represented by a union. We at KREM are represented by IBEW, which I’m not exactly certain is the correct union, but they were brought in long before I arrived here. It’s my feeling that if we did not have the union on our side, we could loose some very important benefits.. mostly in terms of pay and overtime pay. I think we are the only union shop left in Spokane now. I used to work across town, which was not and is not a union shop. Pay there was not set by any scale… it didn’t matter if you had 6 months experience or 16 yrs experience. Pay at that station was set by how well you got along with the news director, and if he liked you, and if you had a family to support or were single. I was single so I made less then some of my cowokers, even though I was the chief photographer. I’m sure things like this still go on at some stations without unions. So my answer would have to be YES, we need the representation and support of a union to help us keep up our benefits.”


Scott Shulman ABC News Los Angeles, CA
“As a 22 year employee of ABC, and one who has been walking a picket line for the past 6 weeks, I can tell you the upside and the downside of unions. I have never been one to wave the union flag, but I do recognize the necessity of having the ability to bargain collectively. In a market the size of Los Angeles, most stations are owned by large corporations such as General Electric, or Disney. In general, the unions have had strong contracts and employees have been rewarded with good benefits and competitive pay. With the frantic rush of management to disposable work forces, it is the unions that have attempted to turn the tide. Corporations that have no problem with 40 or 50% daily hires in the ranks don’t understand the concept of loyalty or quality. They do understand stock prices and shareholders.
Our union, NABET, has been attempting to negotiate a contract for almost 2 years. The issues facing our membership have never been pay issues, but disagreements over jurisdiction, pension, and medical benefits. While we fight over 4 or 5 million dollars in contributions to our retirement fund, the company hires non-union crews to double-staff each Monday Night Football game, this at a cost of over 14 million dollars to date. Now all work is being done by non-union workers, as we have been locked out of our jobs since a one-day strike at the beginning of November. Some members blame the union for mis-calculating the resolve of the company to force the kind of contract they want. Others blame Disney, whose record profits and outrageous executive salaries never cease to amaze the lowly newsphotog. It’s hard to listen to Mickey sing the blues of network TV, when you realize that this is the company that paid an unproductive Michael Ovitz almost 140 Million Dollars just to leave the company. Not to mentions this weeks receipts from “A Bugs Life”.
Are unions necessary? Maybe yes, maybe no. It depends where you work, and how the company feels about its employees. How do you think you would fare one-on-one against Michael Eisner or Rupert Murdoch? I’m not sure I’d want to enter that ring without the tape rolling.”


Anonymous
“We definitely need unions. As a matter of fact, it would be wise for IATSE, NABET, IBEW, AFTRA and SAG to merge into one union. Why? The strength in numbers. Entertainment companies across the spectrum are merging their behinds off. These conglomerates are laying workers off, left and right. All in the name of “corporate greed”. Our unions need to come together; leave their titles and ego’s at the door, (and not pick them up on the way out) and examine a way for all of the aforementioned unions to become one. At this point in the game (and millennium) it is vital to our survival in the broadcast and motion picture industry. None of the top union officials will be displaced. Given the number of locals, coupled with the rank and file members in existence, there is plenty of work for the union officials and staff at each local. All of the rank and file would continue paying their dues as usual.
However, some re-assignments of titles would be necessary at the union headquarters. There is no need to decrease the salary of the union officials and staff. To a degree, the entertainment companies have rendered the unions impotent. When one corporate head (who shall remain un-named) makes 600 gozillion dollars and has the audacity to lay off workers that’s crazy. What person needs to make over 50-million dollars to live comfortably? Better yet, if we had one union, those layoffs could not take place. Do you know why? Because our one union would be in a position to protest such an action effectively. If a company is truly healthy, there is no need to lay off if employees. To lay people off to simply increase your stock holders bottom line is wrong. In my opinion, our one union would do a better job policing such corporate behavior. Just imagine, every camera operator, technician, reporter, actor, assignment editor, writer, director, sound tech, make-up artist and everyone else affiliated with producing the on screen product in one union! The R-E-S-P-E-C-T would return to the union and the rank and file immediately.
We simply must move into the 21st century prepared to deal with the new management style of these entertainment giants. If in fact all of the unions became one, our brothers and sisters at ABC would not be on the street today. Management would have to negotiate in good faith, or studios would quite frankly, be shut down. No one would show up for work. Given the power that the one union would have, scabs, “wanna bee’s” with little, or no experience, and all others who live below the curb would think 5 times before crossing a picket line. I am personally in favor of having a union.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed the union intervening on behalf of the rank and file. When managers have attempted to circumvent portions of a contract. Penalize people for not compromising their safety in a life threatening situation. Or just being totally intimidating “because they can”. The union was there. However, it is time for us to get smarter ladies and gentlemen. I for one hope and pray that our beloved unions would come together collectively and work out something palatable for all of us in the industry. If ever there was a time for one union, it is now. Solidarity forever! Viva uno union!”


Dave Putnam KABC-TV Los Angeles, CA
” I have to give my endorsement to union representation for television photographers. This need is especially acute in the major markets. In this day of mega-mergers and expanding station groups we should all feel the urgent need to band together and set some minimum standards for benefits and compensation. We often find ourselves called upon to work long hours during nights, weekends and holidays often having to leave home on a moment’s notice and not return for days or weeks at a time. Often this work is done under less than ideal conditions. The level of our frustration is often compounded by a growing legion of management that really has no practical experience or concept of what we go through on a daily basis to get our jobs done and get the show on the air. This is happening at a time when the companies we work for are still making major profits and paying their upper managers extraordinary compensation. As the bean counters have moved into the day to day management of many of our bureaus and stations, we have all felt the general attitude of disdain for the rank and file.
More and more often, we are looked upon as a disposable workforce of “daily hires” and “casual employees”. Some of us have not helped our cause by our willingness to bend over backward in order to get that next, “better” job. In this era of “casual employment”, I often find myself working side by side with people who work 40+ hours a week year after year with no real job security, health insurance, sick time, pension, 401K plan or vacation. These people would jump at the chance for full time employment but the companies feel no obligation to provide it due to the cut-throat attitude of potential employees in smaller markets that are willing to take part time jobs to further their careers. The unions have seen this rising trend of part timers and has tried to stem the growth whenever possible, but they are also trying to improve the general conditions that those who choose non staff jobs are working under.
We all know that daily news coverage requires pretty much a steady level of employees to get the show on the air, yet the companies that we work for are making demands of workers for less security and compensation. At least with a collective bargaining agreement in place the companies can be held to some level of obligation to hire full time employees and give their ” casual employees” a little bigger slice of the pie. If you want to see what big time television would be like without a union contract, talk to some of the folks at ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut to find out what the conditions are like in a non-union shop. You probably then will see why they are seriously considering seeking NABET-CWA to represent them.
As our employers have grown in size by mergers and sales, so have our unions. When I came to work for ABC in 1981, I joined NABET, which at that time was a pretty small operation. While ABC grew in size through a merger with Capital Cities and a sale to Disney, NABET affiliated with the CWA, which is a large multifaceted union that represents workers in many trades. Through this affiliation, my union can now rely on CWA’s leverage and vast pool of resources to help negotiate a contract that offers some pretty decent standards. CWA has people on their staff that deal only with contract negotiation and member mobilization. In the old pre-CWA days NABET was the proverbial bug on the windshield of a Cadillac. Now at least with CWA, we are the rock on the windshield of a Peterbilt.
I am glad to support my union with a small portion of my salary (1.25%) in order to deal from a relative position of strength when it comes to contract negotiation. During the current lockout at ABC, the clout of CWA has been able to convince the vast majority of the Democratic Party to boycott ABC News by honoring our picket line and refusing to grant interviews to SCAB crews. This has crippled ABC’s ability to give balanced coverage of the current impeachment proceedings as “Nightline” and “This Week” have become a virtual Republican forum. Without the sense of urgency to remedy this dilemma and get negotiations moving forward, I’m sure that the company would have no problem keeping us out of our jobs for several more months. In the days before CWA came on the scene, this would not have had a chance of occurring even in our wildest dreams. My union has given me the opportunity to gain knowledge in the non-linear editing area by helping to arrange and subsidize ongoing training. NABET has offered this training to all of its’ members. In contrast, ABC has only begun to make vague offers of training to whomever it sees fit. They would rather see this new technology which is the natural progression from our current videotape format fall into the hands of non represented employees. Through negotiation, NABET has also been able to push the company into setting up a union/management safety committee at my station that helps provide a dialog in order to make our work safer. Even with this committee in place, KABC has fought any training or written guidelines for our members with tooth and nail. Often times you may hear that the presence of a union causes a very restrictive work environment. I have not found this to be the case at ABC. I have been able to increase my expertise in many job functions while working under union conditions thus becoming an employee with a lot more value than what I arrived with.
You may have also heard stories of lazy, unmotivated union workers, but I have news for you; there are lazy, unmotivated non-union workers also. ABC has the contractual ability to get rid of unproductive union members if management sees fit to do so. More often than not, I have seen managers at ABC turn their back on situations where they are not getting the most “bang for the buck” from a union employee. Instead of facing the problem head-on and dealing with poor work habits or lack of training, the management instead chooses to blame the union for their lack of ability to motivate or discipline these less productive members of their staff. This dysfunctional scenario is brought on by management’s failure to know and understand the work rules of the agreements put in place by their own labor relations departments and the unions that represent their employees. This situation is further worsened by a certain amount of laziness and lack of true leadership on management’s part. The union also gives a better security blanket to protect workers who may be singled and given a hard time just because they may be outspoken or out of favor.


Andy Dubrovsky WHDH-TV Boston, MA
“Almost all Boston tv photogs are represented by the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) or as we jokingly refer to it : I Bowl Every Wednesday. For the most part I find that it’s quite helpful to have the Union on our side. In the past twenty five years our station has been through three different owners and without the union contract I’m sure we would have all been out on the street a long time ago. The union is not anywhere near as powerful as it was two decades ago. Management can do just about anything it wants with us EXCEPT: lay us off, or give vacations, holidays or shift picks out of seniority. Negotiations can be quite nerve-racking. We recently signed a new contract, but before that we worked for over a year without one, while talks went on. we received wage increases of about 3% per year. I believe that we could have gotten larger increases if we were not represented by a union, but the raises would have been based on performance evaluations. Although evaluations can be good at times, I personally don’t trust management to be fair and equitable in these circumstances. It leaves the door open for too much ass-kissing, and creates a lot of bad feeling among the troops. The main drawback that I can see in being represented by a union, is that it protects some people who don’t deserve protection. In any shop there are a few malingerers or whiners. The company can’t fire them unless they are drinking, drugging or stealing on the job. The good workers wind up picking up the slack for them and that isn’t fair. However, when I’m sixty, and have 38 years seniority over the other shooters, you can bet your ass I will expect a little better treatment. What it all comes down to is that I’ve worked under 16 news directors during my career here. Eight were total idiots, three were evil, two didn’t last long enough for me to form an opinion. Only three news directors had my complete and total confidence. With those odds, I’m glad that I was protected by the IBEW. “


Greg Kahl WMFD-TV Mansfield, OH
“Should television news photographers be represented by labor unions? Yes… I’m a rookie videographer working for a news department that currently has only two full-time shooters. We recently had a semi-pro basketball league move into our town. Our GM is a partner with the local franchise and decided to televise their home schedule without consulting the crew that is supposed actually do the work. So I’m currently working six to seven days a week (60-70 hrs.) with no pay raise. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and enjoy shooting sports, but it would be nice to have some representation in situations like this. The shit keeps getting piled higher, but they don’t hire anyone to shovel it. My benefits are also lousy, but hey… you’ve got to pay your dues and get experience somewhere.”


Kurt Weinschenker WTRF-TV Wheeling, WV
“Tough question with NLE getting cheaper and cheaper to do. I’d say 95% of station managers care more about their bottom line than they do their people. I figure that’s why unions get formed in the first place. Once entrenched, unions are hard to get rid of. Why managers just can’t treat people decently in the first place is something that positively boggles my mind. The trouble for us photogs is that we don’t have the star power to individually ask for more money. So we have to do it collectively. And that means unions, collective bargaining, contracts, grievances, and lawyers, with all the grief that goes with them. What will kick over all the applecarts in the relationship between management and photographers will be NLE. I’ve been playing with a Panasonic EZ-30 the past couple weeks. Mini-DV tape format, 3 – 1/3 inch CCDs, firewire (IEEE 1394 I/O), and about the size of a large paperback book. The video is fantastic. It what most can do with a AJ-D700 DVC Pro camera. I could see it replace the big camera for about 80% of the shooting I do for a network affiliate. What’s more, editing is ridiculously easy. Pop the camera onto its docking station, and blow the video straight into a Power Macintosh equipped with a firewire board. (FWIW, the next generation of Macs, due out this time next year, will have firewire ). Edit with Adobe Premiere and spit it out via firewire wherever you want — straight to a server, or back to a mini-DV tape, or out to one of the new Panasonic D230H decks with a firewire connector. The advent of cameras like the EZ-30 coupled with inexpensive workstations like the next generation of Power Macs will cause real problems for places that have unions already. The job classifications will become obsolete. And collective bargaining will get ugly. Who do you want to put out of a job today?
I suppose, on balance, I want a union — sometimes it’s the only safety net between you and management stupidity. On the other hand, after working with an EZ-30 the past couple weeks — I figure the relationship between management and photographer will change. There’s a real danger the “cameraman” in the classic sense will become obsolete. And while I a union will help, I’m not sure how it will help.”


Richard Weiss KTVU-TV
“That’s an interesting question. If News (and station/network) management was as ethical in the labor sense as they profess to be in the journalistic sense there would be no need for unions. Unfortunately they are neither. On the other hand I belong to three unions (IBEW, NABET/CWA, and IA). They seem to be an add on businesses that suck money from the membership w/o any real benefit to the r&f, especially the daily hires. Between the three unions, if I die today, they wouldn’t pay out enough to bury me. I could get cremated but my wife would have to bring her own box to take away my ashes. I have to tell you the NABET/ Disney lockout is really hurting me. I had no say in the original action. I will derive no benefit no matter what the out come. It’s going to be a hard Christmas!”


Jason Strzalkowski WNEM TV-5 Flint/Saginaw/Bay City, MI
“This is the first shop I’ve done with a union. At first glance, I thought it was great. Our pay is near 30% more than our competitors, good insurance, good vacation time. but as time goes on, we get to realize that in the last contract, news and more specifically, photographers were sold down the river on a few very vaguely worded policies. We were told “don’t worry, we wont be nazis about this. We will be flexible.” Wow! If that wasn’t the kiss of death. The union has been slowly letting more and more things go for assumed station policy, when they don’t appear in the contract. I don’t know if it would be any better w/o a union, but i know the one we have must be saying “What Photogs?


Anonymous Cincinnati, OH
“In Cincinnati, two stations are union and two are non-union. Since I work at one of the non-union stations I think that I can safely say that our staff makes (on average) the lowest wages in town. I enjoy the benefits of seniority even though we don’t have a contract. This isn’t always the case though. We have no pay scale, schedules are not guaranteed, and we generally lack any bargaining ability. Would a Union help? We’ll never find out because we would be out on the street in a heartbeat if management even believed that we were considering a Union. I’ll stay anonymous on this one, I wouldn’t want the bosses to believe that the “grunts” were thinking for themselves.”


John DuMontelle LATINCAM Managua, Nicaragua“During my career so far, I have worked both union and non union shops. The short answer to your question is, if you have good stable management at your place of work, you shouldn’t need a union. The reality in todays world is different. Regular management turnover and the ever present quest for the bottom line require some kind of defense/representation for those of us who actually do the work in television. To many kids today do not realize the only reason there is such a thing as 40 hour work weeks, overtime pay, paid vacations, health plans, merit raises, cost of living raises and many more are all due to unions. Without the unions, non of this would have happened. Yes, I know all the union horror stories. I’ve lived through too many horror stories of my own in non union shops. I pick union.”


Anonymous
“If it weren’t for unions we would all be making $6.00 per hour and cleaning floors and toilets along with our Photography/editing duties . In these “New Days” of broadcasting where downsizing and expanded job descriptions are part of everyday life, union representation is almost a mandatory thing. Without it you might as well get in line for food stamps. If you are not represented currently, you should really get the ball rolling and get a union to represent your shop. Nabet/CWA and IBEW are the major broadcast unions. You will find it easier to make a living and you won’t have to move every year or two to give youself a cost of living wage increase. Then you can concentrate on your JOB instead of worrying about whether you can pay your rent, buy groceries, and pay for your car insurance. ” 


Thomas Blakely VCPT/WNVT
“Tough, tough question. I see two sides. On the one hand, Unions do guarantee better pay, and generally fairer working conditions. OTOH, they also mean you can’t edit your own stuff, and some of the Union folks I’ve witnessed are definately just cruising along with no care or thought to what they put out. Frankly, I think it’d be best if stations were required to at least pay, say 85% of Union scale. Then, maybe, us Non-Union folks could work 40hrs and still afford to eat. “


Mark Cosson KTVF-TV Fairbanks, Alaska
“Considering the crappy pay photojournalists get in the smaller markets, why not be represented by a union…”


Chuck Dennis KBAK-TV Bakersfield, CA.
“I truly feel that as a whole we are exploited to the enth degree…. No lunches, no breaks, unrequested comp. time and, when it comes time to use the comp. time it is denied. No body armor or foul wheather gear and the list goes on…..Its about time that we as a collective group stand up for ourselves….Its been said before that T.V. is nothing but radio without video and, this industry should be forced to recognize this…. We work harder and longer than any of our co-workers and in a normal shift can be in a cow pasture one minute and with leaders of nations the next.”


Anonymous Richmond, VA
“So far, I’ve only worked in non-union shops. Pay sucks (3 1/2 % is supposed to be a fair raise?) Maybe if you make $80K, but at less than $20K, it’s almost insulting. However, I can to my one man band thing which I enjoy from time to time, I used to be a reporter and every once in a while I like to write a VOSOT or two. I guess I couldn’t do that at a union shop (correct me if I am wrong). Also, except for one guy, every union shooter I met has been “a slacker just wanting to punch the clock” (the words of a D.C. area reporter who qualified the remarks by saying they do get off their butt during a crisis). So far, the pay has been so bad at the non-union shops that unions are looking good. (Hey, union guys, sell your shops to us. Let us know how good/bad your situation is!)”


Anonymous 
“Should we be represented by unions? Not yes, but HELL YES! I would LOVE to use the following lines… To the editor: “I would love to pick up your slack. I know you’ve had a rough day of making personal phone calls. I know you’re behind, obviously, and you need help. Heck, it’s 5 till showtime! But I’m union. So it looks like YOU’RE screwed. Oh, I need the phone when you’re finished.” To the news director: “Drive where? Do you have any idea how long that would take? I wouldn’t receive a lunch break. What would OSHA think about that? What would my union rep think about that? Send Tom. He isn’t union.” To my reporter: “My union rep said I can break your wrist if you try to touch my camera again.” Oh boy! I wish we were union!”

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