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Broadcast news gets labor blues

Union organizer premiers new message to Missoula's NBC television technicians

It was a scene straight out of America's turbulent labor history. About a dozen workers gathered in a cramped, smoky room on Missoula's Northside, their attention directed at the union organizer addressing them through the haze.

From his John Reed-era haircut to the rolled-up sleeves on his blue workshirt, Rex Kendall physically fits the role of outside agitator. And last week, the well-spoken representative of Montana's new broadcast employees union traveled from Helena to recruit technicians from one of Missoula's television stations to join him on a crusade: one big union.

Kendall's dream, sparked by a decade's worth of experience in Montana's television industry, is to unionize every station in the state. During his stop in Missoula, he promises little in the way of tangible benefits to his potential recruits-raises, benefits and the like are beyond his power to guarantee, Kendall tells employees of KECI, the local NBC affiliate broadcast on Channel 13.

What they will get from union representation, he says, is dignity and respect.

"It's about peace of mind and security," he tells his predominantly male, young audience. "Even if you end up with the same wages and benefits, your jobs will still be better."

Only two of the 18 television stations with broadcast signals originating in the state of Montana are unionized. Five workers at Butte's KXLF have belonged for "years and years," Kendall says. They were joined by Helena's KTVH employees last month, who were bruised by a loss of benefits that accompanied the station's sale last summer to Sunbelt Communications, a Las Vegas company, and voted to link up with the fledgling Broadcast Employees Association of Montana (BEAM).

Three months into his job as an organizer for BEAM, the Helena station was Kendall's first campaign, his first victory.

So when Bob Precht, owner of the Missoula-based Eagle Communications, which runs three NBC affiliated stations in Western Montana-including KECI-announced in December that he planned to sell his company's holdings to a Pennsylvania firm, Kendall says he saw a chance to make a move on behalf of the employees.

"All the employees are nervous. Bob Precht's not a bad guy," says Kendall, a former Eagle employee himself, "but with a company coming in from out of state, they don't know what to expect and they want some protection."

Precht says he understands why his employees are apprehensive, but wants them to give the new company, Lamco Communications, a chance. "Hopefully, we'll be able to point out that many concerns employees are now feeling are not as severe as they may consider them to be," he says, "and be able to persuade them that it's not in their best interests to proceed with a union shop."

Nevertheless, the first big step in that direction came this week when the National Labor Relations Board sent a representative to Missoula for a hearing to determine the makeup of the bargaining unit, establishing who can vote in the union election scheduled for the first week of April. With 37 signed union cards from the three stations in hand, and counting on more additional support from the trenches, Kendall says he is optimistic.

"The support in Kalispell and Bozeman is good," he says of the other two Eagle stations. "As fast as this has gone, we could have a unit in here very soon."

Like the vast majority of Missoula's notoriously underpaid workforce, KECI workers' biggest complaint is about money. While the station's technicians aren't paid much worse than many, they question whether it has to be that way-after all, they're responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of high-tech gear and live worlds apart from their more glamorous talking-head colleagues.

Union representation, they say, will at least give them some leverage in negotiating their pay.

Curt Shirling worked for two years in KECI's master control room, during which he spent most of his time making sure commercials, news and satellite uplinks all came off smoothly for late-night TV viewers. He started at $5.75 an hour. When he left last summer, he was making $6.25. When his co-workers were given a 50 cent raise, he says, he was offered 25 cents.

"To their credit, they were going to give me the 50 cents in September, after I said I was leaving, but it was too little, too late," he says.

"I left because they wouldn't change my schedule so I didn't have to work six days a week, and I was repeatedly given the run around by my manager. I realized that things were never going to get any better-I was always going to be behind on bills. They were taking me for all I was worth and I'm a better person than that."

Photographer Joe MacKay has put in four years at KECI since 1991. With a four-year degree in radio and television production, he makes $6 an hour. He left briefly in 1995 for stints in Boise and Helena, but came back last fall.

"I was making $5.50 an hour when I left in 1995 and my main job at that time was driving a quarter-of-a-million dollar satellite uplink truck," he says. "I've driven it all over the Pacific Northwest. I had a great job-uplinking the president's speech or Tom Brokaw broadcasts. That was a ridiculous amount of money, but they had me over a barrel. I didn't want to leave."

Robert Harsch, who worked with Schirling in the control room, has been on the job for five years. He makes $7.25 an hour-a fact he hopes the union can help him change.

"That's not enough to live on in Missoula," he says. "I haven't had a raise since August 1996, but my rent has gone up, utilities have gone up, everything else has gone up.

"You shouldn't have to move to another city to make a living wage. That's part of the Missoula poverty mentality. I'm all in favor of this capitalism thing, but it would be nice if they shared a little bit."

Gordon Stabler, a 10-year employee with a masters' degree in directing, oversees the station's technical crews. He credits many of the problems at KECI to Eagle's management structure.

"Mr. Precht has surrounded himself with a cadre of middle managers who administer his decisions," Stabler says. "If he's not there, often times we have to wait-sometimes two or three weeks-for him to return to get an answer. With the time frame involved in live television, that's not the way to go. It's very frustrating for us."

All four of the men complain, like those who attended Kendall's meeting, that employees have nowhere to go with their concerns. They say they have literally been laughed at for asking for a raise, and that there is little follow-up or accountability in the corporation.

"You're supposed to get yearly evaluations, but some people haven't had one in three years," MacKay says. "There's no structure for making sure that kind of thing happens."

"They have unilaterally drawn up job descriptions, handed them to us, no discussion," says Harsch. "And at the end, it says other duties may be assigned. There's no contract, no grievance procedure.

"People aren't afraid of talking about the union because so many people have worked so hard, and gotten so little, for so long."

That, Kendall says, is what makes his job easy. "This is such a great industry to organize in because nobody's making enough to have a hell of a lot to lose," he says.

"Like this guy in Helena said, 'I get fired, I'll go make twice as much at Wendy's.'

The conditions at Eagle's stations aren't really worse than other places in Montana, Kendall says, and he should know. In the past 10 years, Kendall worked at six Montana stations-a third of the total number in the state.

He was at KPAX in 1991 for an ugly union election that failed by one vote. He was at KTVM in Butte for "Black Friday" in October 1993, when Bob Precht showed up unexpectedly to hand out severance checks and close the doors. His most recent gig was in Billings-a job he lost last fall after he started handing out union literature.

"There's no pay, no security. I kept going from one to another thinking it might be better," Kendall says. "And they'll say that they'll treat you better, but it never came through for me."

A print reporter by training, Kendall's first career was with the D.C.-based Washington Star in the early '80s. "I came back to get my degree and ended up doing an American Express commercial in Cooke City," he says. "It was great fun, great money and it put me through school.

"I liked all the equipment, it was like making a little movie," he says, explaining his switch to broadcast.

After losing his job with NBC's KULR in Billings, he called up the state AFL-CIO office, who hooked him up with officials from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They promptly hired Kendall to organize the state's TV workers.

Kendall says he's happy in his new career. "It's a good fit because I've worked all over the state; I know a lot of the people.

"I've only been doing this three months and already had one successful campaign. One of the things helping us out is that these out-of-state companies are coming in and buying the stations."

Kendall is coy about his next target, refusing to name names. But his description of the union's next likely campaign-an out-of-state corporation running multiple stations-can only mean another of his former employers, Mountain Television Network, the company which operates Missoula's KPAX.

"What's next? I'd sure hate to say right now. Everyone in the state is aware of what's going on," he says. "We're looking at companies that own three or four stations, out-of-state owners."

According to the 1996 Montana Broadcast Association directory, MTN (itself owned, in turn, by the South Carolina-based Evening Post Publishing Company) runs more stations than any other company in the state, with four spread from Missoula and Butte in the west to Great Falls and Billings on the other side of the divide.

Kendall's campaign in some ways is unprecedented. According to its national office, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has never attempted a state-wide organizing drive. In fact, only a little more than a quarter of all the licensed television stations in the U.S.-445 of the 1,569-are union shops, according to the two main organizations representing TV technicians.

Eagle's Bob Precht has got a reputation-even among his employees-for being a friendly, likeable guy. He's got solid show biz references, having produced the Ed Sullivan Show and the Country Music Awards.

But Precht is clearly cross at being targeted by Kendall's potentially ground-breaking campaign. His family has owned and run Eagle Communications for two decades, though Precht himself didn't take over day-to-day operations at the company's stations until 1989.

While Precht declines to debate the pros and cons of union shops, he makes his opinion obvious: "Having owned and operated the stations for 20 years without a union, I don't think it's necessary to have one now. With that said, I'm doing everything necessary I can, that is reasonable and legal, to put forward the management's position."

He won't address his employees' concerns directly, aside from saying that the call for raises is "a classic complaint." But in a bulletin posted at KECI, Precht articulates his position a little more clearly. Under the heading "Some Facts You Should Know," Precht spells out five points in bold face lettering:

"The union cannot guarantee you anything. If a union is voted in, pay raises are not automatic. You may even make less money than you do now.

"As a union member you are required to pay union dues.

"If you vote for the union, you will be stuck with the union for at least a year, maybe more, and the company cannot help you get over the legal obstacles the union will throw in your way.

"All a union can do is discuss wages and employment terms with management.

"Five out of six workers in the United States do not belong to a union. Why?"

While Kendall and others point to the memo as an example of "classic union-busting tactics" and wait for the fight to degenerate as it did at KPAX in 1991, when one vote made all the difference, Precht's mild criticism and refusal to voluntarily recognize the union-a step that necessitated the NLRB hearing and will lead to a subsequent union election-has been Eagle's management only real negative reaction.

Marshall Noecker, of the Pennsylvania-based Lamco Communications, comes off just as amiably as Precht over the telephone. The new owner, pending federal approval of the sale, says he is taking a hands off approach to the organizing drive, and refuses to knock the union at all.

"I've never been in a situation like this," Noecker says, "and my lawyers advise me the best thing to do is not make any comments about what if the union wins or what if the union is defeated.

"All I can really do is talk about the company and its past history."

Lamco, like Kendall, has its roots in the print media, having published a rural lifestyle magazine called Grit for 100 years. "Like so many other magazines, like Life or Look, when television came in, we found it difficult to compete," Noecker says.

"I was a consultant in 1975 when the magazine was having some difficulty, and was asked to help the company look at other kinds of businesses we could get into. I encouraged them to look at TV."

Now the CEO of Lamco, Noecker owns five stations from North Carolina to California. He likes the fact that Eagle's stations are NBC affiliates and that they use a strong VHF signal. Both these factors, he says, will make it easier to expand in the Western Montana market. Noecker also has reassurances for his future employees.

Local news production, he says, is valuable from a business standpoint, and all his stations have increased the amount of news they put out in the last five years.

"When you're running footage from the network, they take five out of six advertising slots, but with local news, all those slots are yours to sell," he says. "That shields you to a degree if a network is having problems.

"It means the most important thing for a local station is local news."

Whether that means more money for the techs behind the scenes remains to be seen, and back at the organizing meeting, the workers talk about their uncertain future.

"Maybe the reason there are no unions at the other Lamco stations is because they're being treated well," speculates an older woman. A few murmur in agreement, but not all. "They're probably buying us for the status quo, where we're at now," observes a young man.

Kendall intercedes. "If they treat their employees well, that would be good but it doesn't mean you'd be treated worse if there is a union."

With an election set at KECI for April 8, the employees won't have time to give Lamco a chance before they have to make a decision. But the most outspoken union supporters says that doesn't really matter. "The big point to be made," says Joe MacKay, "is that this isn't the glamour industry people associate with television.

"We're not actors, we're journalists, and we take what they give us. But maybe we don't have to any more."

KECI crews say they are underpaid, given their tenure and expertise. Photo by Jeff Powers.

Reporter-turned-organizer Rex Kendall hopes to unionize all of Montana's television technicians. Photo by Jeff Powers.

KECI union supporters meet in the hallway of the Missoula County Courthouse to consider their options for conducting an election. Photo by Jeff Powers.

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