Friday, December 23, 2005

It's their news

published in the Portland Phoenix

WGME Channel 13 may be running ads lamenting how expensive it is to do business in Maine, but the company is actually getting a pretty good deal.

"Our contract ran out December 1, 2004, and we have not had a pay increase for two years," says Matt Beck, shop steward for WGME's back-of-the-house union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1837, which represents about 50 photographers, technicians, editors, producers, directors, and engineers — just about anybody who doesn't appear on screen — at the station.

They and the folks who do appear on screen say they have been trying to get back to the bargaining table since the summertime, without success.

IBEW members demonstrated Thursday morning, and again in the afternoon of that high-teens-temperature day, on a sidewalk in front of a vacant store at the intersection of Washington and Allen Avenues, near the WGME office in Portland. The station is owned by the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, known for its tendency to inject partisan politics into its news coverage, such as 2004's decision to force its seven ABC affiliates not to air a dramatic Nightline segment featuring the names and photographs of Americans killed in Iraq.

Sinclair bought the station from the Guy Gannett Company in 1998, an event that Beck refers to as "when the Dark Ages began." Beck and his union members fear they will be handed a contract they will be "forced" to sign, rather than one developed through negotiation.

Negotiations between the IBEW and the station have been stalled since the summer, which was the last time the union met with Sinclair. Beck says the company has refused to respond to the union's demand to prove its claim that WGME's workers are paid more than their counterparts at any of Sinclair's 59 other stations, which are spread across 22 states. Only two or three other stations have unionized labor. There is no scheduled date for negotiations to resume, he says.

The attorney representing Sinclair during the negotiations, Michael Lowenbaum of St. Louis, says the delay is actually the union's fault, for not asking for a meeting. "We'll meet anytime," he says, adding that he would like an agreement "yesterday."

Company officials, from Sinclair CEO David D. Smith to WGME General Manager Alan Cartwright, did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

Beck says the union wants a "reasonable" wage increase — but would not be specific about how much — as well as guarantees that the company will continue to contribute to workers' 401(k) retirement plans, will offer health insurance to part-time workers, and agree to retain a contract provision requiring all employees to become members of the union under penalty of dismissal.

"We just felt it was time to let the public know" about what was going on, Beck says. The union has launched a Web site, www.wgmeunfair.com, members are wearing protest buttons to work, and they are planning another action in January, perhaps more specifically targeting advertisers.

"Corporate America's gotten a lot stronger" in recent years, says Paul Desjardins, a maintenance technician who has worked at the station for 30 years, saying that is why he wants to remain part of a union that can represent workers' interests.

Cynthia Phinney, the union's business manager, not a WGME employee, says the negotiations have been "pretty frustrating," because "Sinclair's from away. They don't care about Maine."

The reporters and anchors at WGME — members of another union, who began their own negotiating earlier this year — "share in their [co-workers'] fight," said reporter Doug Ray, that union's shop steward. They cannot demonstrate because of a contract restriction, and Ray says it's not at that stage for his group yet, though "their concerns are our concerns."

And though his union has received no company response to the actions last week, other local unions have offered support to the WGME workers, Beck says.

"We want a contract," he says. "This has really just begun."

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