In June, 2,700 members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians (NABET)—one third of NBC’s workforce—went on strike against the network over the issue of job security. FAIR spoke with Calvin Siemer, Secretary-Treasurer of NABET Local 11 in New York, about the dispute with NBC and its corporate parent, General Electric. As Extra! goes to press, NBC and NABET have resumed negotiations; the following comments are pertinent whatever the outcome of the talks.
SIEMER: First off, it’s important to understand that a union should never accept an imposed contract. NBC made a take-it-or-leave-it offer and then implemented it without our agreement as of midnight June 29. That’s when we walked. In particular, what made this contract unacceptable is a “successor clause” worded so that if NBC is sold—or moves its facilities to a new building, as the network is planning—the contract would become invalid. GE, which owns NBC, buys and sells businesses on a regular basis. They have a policy of selling anything that doesn’t have a 15 percent profit ratio. GE recently sold its consumer electronics division, which turned a profit of about 12.2 percent. NBC currently has a profit ratio of 11.4 percent, and if it doesn’t improve, GE may sell NBC TV. GE has already sold NBC radio and, according to the successor clause, the new owner doesn’t have to take the union workers.
FAIR: What about wages?
SIEMER: NBC proposed a restructured wage scale so that workers in Washington and Cleveland would have to work eight years to reach the salary cap, whereas previously it took four years. There’s also the issue of daily hires. Eleven years ago, NABET showed its flexibility by allowing the company to hire some daily workers on a per diem basis. We recognized that sometimes it’s necessary to hire pick-ups for televising sports, for example. But under NBC’s new plan, various loopholes do away with reasonable limits on the number of daily hires. I should add, we’ve had a four-year contract and NBC is trying to impose a two-year contract.
FAIR: How have the media covered the strike?
SIEMER: They’ve treated it as a traditional labor dispute between management and some disgruntled employees who want more money. But it’s not that at all. GE is trying to set a pattern which will have an adverse impact on the entire media industry. Broadcast owners no longer treat the media as a public trust. They don’t feel a responsibility to put forward the best product possible. Their chief objective is to make as much money as possible.
FAIR: How has worker morale at NBC changed since GE took over?
SIEMER: The morale was a lot better before GE. We had become number one in the ratings, and labor relations were improving. NBC made a profit of $440 million—no network ever made that much money. Then GE came in and it seemed like the invasion of the body
snatchers, like a new force had taken people over. At one point, NBC employees were asked to contribute money to GE’s Political Action Committee. It was a horrendous idea and to his credit, Larry Grossman, president of NBC News, voiced his disapproval. I just wish he’d stand up to GE now that they’re trying to eviscerate the news division.
FAIR: Why has management been reluctant to negotiate with you?
SIEMER: While we’re on strike, GE has created a “living laboratory”—that’s how Grossman described it—at NBC to see how much they can get away with. They brought in an “efficiency expert” to find ways of cutting costs, despite the fact that NBC is projecting a record profit of $600 million. Inevitably, this will diminish the quality of news programming. But management believes viewers won’t care if there’s less investigative reporting or spottier news coverage. During the strike, NBC didn’t air the first day of Shultz’s Contragate testimony.
Nor did they run a story on GE selling its consumer appliance division…. It’s becoming almost like a capitalist version of state television in the Soviet Union. Imagine the kind of reporting you’d get on Bhopal if Union Carbide controlled the news. Is it a coincidence that NBC, a network owned by GE, a major nuclear contractor, aired a pro-nuclear power show earlier this year?
FAIR: What kind of support has NABET received from other workers?
SIEMER: Other workers at NBC realize we’re fighting for their future as well. And what GE is doing to NBC is a threat to employees at other broadcast networks. As corporate ownership becomes increasingly more concentrated, media workers need to coordinate their efforts with other unions. This has to become NABET’s agenda. In this respect, I think the average member is far ahead of the union leadership.
NBC Employees Speak Out…
[Extra! solicited comments from several striking and nonstriking NBC workers who wish to remain anonymous.]
“What’s happening to us is not unique to NABET and NBC. GE is the third-largest private employer in the US, with a record of brutal labor policies for both union and non-union employees. Since John Welch became chairman of the board about five years ago, GE has laid off over 100,000 workers—25 percent of its workforce. These layoffs were made during a period of booming profits for GE. In 1985, for example, when workers at the Lynn, Massachusetts, plant called a wildcat strike because of abusive conditions, GE closed that section of the plant and moved production to South Korea. With this history, what kind of coverage can we expect of labor issues now that NBC is owned by GE?”
“General Electric is a major defense contractor and has lobbied for military build-up since World War II. During the 1950s, Ronald Reagan was the voice of GE on radio and TV. In a sense he still is.”
“Some NABET people don’t believe we should attack GE on the nuclear issue. They think it’s irrelevant to job security, the main issue of our strike. But GE’s nuclear program is part of what’s wrong with our civilian economy.”
On NBC News since GE:
“Let’s remember that news coverage at NBC was never that great to begin with. News has always been a consumer entertainment commodity. With GE, it’s just more explicit.”
“GE has done some sleazy things like dumping pollutants into the Hudson River and building unsafe nuclear power plants. I wonder sometimes whether NBC will cover up cost overruns in GE military contracts and pollution at its plants. Will there be a chilling effect on the First Amendment? As a newswriter, I’m constantly aware who my corporate boss is. We learn in this trade when there’s a TWA crash, for example, TWA ads will be pulled off the air that day.”
“Many NBC employees who aren’t in NABET understand that everyone’s job security is under attack. They’ll be next if GE breaks NABET. Rumor has it that soon there will be massive layoffs involving over 20 percent of NBC’s workforce. That becomes an argument for scabbing: if I’m going to be laid off, I may as well earn as much money as possible now. One can take home $1,000 extra a week by scabbing. The company will put you up in a fancy hotel and provide taxi service. People don’t have to leave the building and cross picket lines to get meals. There’s free food and catered dinners for their families to boost morale of those working doubletime.”
“Look at how this industry is divided up: the electrical engineers are in IATSE, the on-air talent is in AFTRA, NBC writers are in NABET but at the two other networks they’re in the Writers Guild. Then there’s the Directors Guild, which agreed to a contract with NBC instead of striking alongside NABET. It’s pitiful that various unions—all under attack—are not unifying. Teamsters cross our picket lines and our people yell at them. But NABET has alienated other unions in the past. That’s the problem.”
Solidarity Forever on Letterman
On July 31, comic book author Harvey Pekar (American Splendour) took on GE in an unlikely forum—NBC’s David Letterman Show. Wearing a NABET T-shirt, Pekar lambasted GE for its sloppy nuclear reactor design, repeated antitrust violations, GE subsidiary Kidder-Peabody’s role in recent Wall Street scandals, and NBC president Robert Wright’s request that his employees fork over money to GE’s Political Action Committee.
Letterman interrupted Pekar, likening his performance to that of an ungrateful houseguest. “I don’t know what motivated him to try and stop me,” Pekar told Extra!. “Maybe he was trying to keep it from getting too serious. He’s an okay guy…. He has backed NABET and made his little digs at GE. But I told him on the air that although he makes his cutesy jokes about Wright’s toilet habits, he can’t really say what’s important.”
AIM’s Love Affair With GE
The misnamed Accuracy In Media (AIM), which has a history of bashing aggressive journalists, has long had a soft spot for media owners. But rarely has AIM been as openly affectionate as with GE chairman John Welch. AIM’s June newsletter said that Welch “showed himself to be very friendly to AIM” at GE’s annual meeting, where AIM proposed that NBC hire an ombudsman to filter out Communist propaganda on NBC News.
AIM chairman Reed Irvine claims that, before the meeting, Welch commended Irvine for his performance on the Phil Donahue Show about the Amerika miniseries. During that program, Irvine suggested that Walter Cronkite and former CIA Director Bill Colby were soft on Communism, praised Reagan’s Star Wars scheme, attacked arms control, asserted that the Soviets supported all the kidnappings and terrorism in the Middle East, said that the Russian czar only executed 17 persons a year and claimed that he’d spoken to Vietnamese who said they would have preferred an atom bomb dropping on them than a Communist victory.
At the shareholders meeting, Welch invited Irvine to a private confab in Welch’s office for a “full discussion of NBC.” Near the end of July, Welch and Irvine met over lunch. Said one AIM staffer, “Mr. Welch is a fan of AIM.”