WGBH says offer to union is final

Workers to vote on concessions March 12

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / March 2, 2011

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The management of WGBH said yesterday that it has presented its last proposal for a new agreement with its largest union, halting contract talks that began in August.

Managers of the giant Boston-based public broadcast operation and officials of the Association of Employees of the Educational Foundation, Communications Workers of America, Local 1300, have been seeking a new three-year contract to replace an agreement that expired at the end of October.

WGBH employs 850 people; Local 1300 represents 280 writers, editors, production workers, and marketing employees.

Management has been seeking concessions that include cutting in half the company’s match for employee retirement plans and is demanding authority to redefine job descriptions. That would allow WGBH to assign employees to work across various media platforms, including TV, radio, and the Web.

Jeanne Hopkins, vice president of communications at WGBH, said that although the management offer is “our last proposal,’’ officials are still willing to talk. “We felt this was as far as we could go with our best thinking of what we could offer,’’ she said. “It is one that is open to them to respond to if they choose to, and we would welcome them back to continue to talk.’’

Union officials said they are willing to make some concessions to preserve jobs and WGBH’s financial health, including cuts in company contributions to retirement plans. But they are not willing to go along with such provisions as allowing WGBH to outsource work without negotiations, or to terminate on-air talent without cause. Union officials said they do not want WGBH to be able to assign members to perform work outside their job description.

“If they retain the ability to outsource anything and everything, it would tend to make moot all the gains we made in other areas of the contract,’’ said Jordan Weinstein, president of the AEEF/CWA, Local 1300, and local host of public radio’s “All Things Considered,’’ the weekday news program. “This is not the warm and friendly way to deal with your employees.’’

Weinstein said negotiations have been contentious.

Union workers will vote March 12 on the management offer. If they reject the proposed contract, both sides will be at an impasse, and WGBH then can implement the terms of its final offer, beginning March 15.

Russ Davis, president of the Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, a Boston-based workers rights group, said WGBH is using “hardcore’’ negotiating tactics. “What the company wants is for them to give up their rights to negotiate as a union,’’ he said.

In December, WGBH called in a federal mediator. “We thought bringing in a mediator was a positive step to help move things along,’’ Hopkins said.

WGBH managers said their goals are to reduce costs and make the public broadcaster more competitive, as multimedia becomes increasingly integral to daily operations.

For fiscal 2011, WGBH has a budget of $156 million, including about $11.5 million in federal grants. Other sources of funding include donations and sponsorships. WGBH produces one-third of all Public Broadcasting Service programming, including national documentary series such as “Frontline’’ and “Nova.’’

Currently in a pledge month, WGBH is facing the threat of federal funding cuts. The House of Representatives has voted to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, through which federal funding is distributed to public stations nationally, including WGBH. Station officials have been asking listeners and viewers to call their senators to support retaining the federal funding.

Hopkins said the station aims to keep production jobs at its Brighton headquarters, but wants to be able to use outside workers when it makes financial sense.

“That may be occasional,’’ she said. “We want to keep the work in-house.’’

Both sides have met repeatedly since August. Union members say management has taken drastic measures to try to bust the union, a claim WGBH officials deny.

“We feel that a number of concessions that WGBH has made over the course of the bargaining reflect good-faith bargaining and fairness to the union workers, and to all the employees at WGBH,’’ Hopkins added.

WGBH had been collecting union dues for salaried staffers and providing that to the union, but at the end of October, when management declined to extend the contract, the union dues checkoff option on paychecks was removed. Since then, the union has been using a PayPal account to collect dues.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at