WAMU employees vote unanimously to unionize

Vote comes after lack of University recognition

WAMU employees vote unanimously to unionize

Clarification and update: This story has been updated to clarify that AU challenged 13 votes over questions of qualification due to staffers’ status as either out-of-state and grant funded, paid for by a third party, acting in sometimes supervisory roles, or working in areas of the station AU does not believe create content. The union disputes the challenge. It has also been updated with a statement from a WAMU spokesperson. 

WAMU employees announced Thursday afternoon that they voted unanimously to form a union with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), which represents content employees at NPR member stations across the U.S.

The election was certified by the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday, according to a press release by WAMU’s union. The vote to unionize was unanimous, with 65 employees mailing in ballots, the union said, although AU is challenging the legitimacy of 13 staffers’ votes, said Jordan Pascale, a transportation reporter at the station. The 13 staffers are either out-of-state and grant-funded, paid for by a third party, act in sometimes supervisory roles, or work in areas of the station AU does not believe create content, according to Ally Schweitzer, a WAMU reporter and unionization leader.

AU did not respond to questions about the challenge.

Staffers at the station announced their decision to unionize on Oct. 1, after DCist reported that American University, which holds the station’s broadcasting license, stopped station leaders from firing a reporter accused of sexual misconduct. At the same time, the outlet was grappling with discussions about the experiences of staffers of color at the station. 

“WAMU’s content creators, as a collective bargaining unit represented by SAG-AFTRA, look forward to advancing our shared beliefs in transparency, accountability, fairness, and most importantly, the truth,” said WAMU Morning Edition host Esther Ciammachilli, in the release. 

In a letter to AU’s Board of Trustees sent on Oct. 22, WAMU staffers urged the University to cooperate in an election process to allow all non-supervisory content creators a vote. The staffers cautioned the University against an anti-union campaign, calling on the University not to waste listener contributions. AU previously referred to union-busting allegations as "misleading and untrue."

The Board of Trustees did not immediately respond for comment.   

The vote to unionize followed an outcry from WAMU staffers when pandemic “surge” employees, who had been brought on in the spring to assist the newsroom with the avalanche of news that followed the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, were notified they’d be released from their contracts on Dec. 31, the union said via Twitter. 

In a Nov. 19 email later obtained by The Eagle, Monna Kashfi, WAMU’s chief content officer, alerted WAMU staff that the surge staffers would not be continuing past the end of the year. Kashfi wrote that management was looking into ways to address the shortfall in the newsroom, but that the changes wouldn’t take place before the end of the year.

A WAMU spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Eagle that the terms of employment for surge staffers were fixed and set to expire at the year's end, while two will continue as part-time employees.

“Their contributions have helped the station serve our community during this crisis and we are thankful for their efforts," the statement said of the surge staffers. "Unfortunately, the grant funding has expired, and the ongoing economic impact of the pandemic prevents the extension of the terms for every member of the cohort.”

On Nov. 30, staffers sent the University and WAMU leadership a letter expressing concern about the cutbacks. 

In a statement to The Eagle, a University spokesperson said they were looking forward to working with the new WAMU union. 

“The university respects the choice of its content staff at WAMU to have union representation. We look forward to beginning the collective bargaining process and we will engage in a constructive dialogue with the union regarding issues related to the terms and conditions of employment,” the statement said. “The university has enjoyed a positive working relationship with other unions that represent university employees and is committed to maintaining a constructive relationship with SAG-AFTRA.”

The University did not answer questions about how it planned to negotiate with the union, and how it might address concerns over furloughs, promotions, budgets and hiring during the pandemic. 

Going forward, the union plans to focus on negotiating rights to input on the hiring of the general manager of the station and other newsroom leadership, better pay transparency and equity, and clauses to prevent or address furloughs, Pascale said. 

In a letter, Beth Muha, AU’s assistant vice president of human resources, said that while the University is looking forward to negotiating with the union, “negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement can be a lengthy process, so we should not expect to have an agreement in place until sometime in 2022.”

nheller@theeagleonline.com, dpapscun@theeagleonline.com

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