The Electrical Worker online
February 2016

Democrats Pull Presidential Debate from
Station Over Labor Dispute
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Production workers at New Hampshire's only major statewide television station gained a powerful set of allies in their contract fight last December when the Democratic National Committee decided to pull ABC-affiliate WMUR's co-sponsorship of a key Democratic primary debate.

International President Lonnie R. Stephenson praised the DNC's decision, saying, "The right to collectively bargain has been a key part of every Democratic Party platform for more than a half a century. WMUR management's refusal to meet in good faith with its employees stands in gross violation of that principle, so I'm pleased that DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and N.H. Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley have taken this step."

The move came in support of 22 of the station's directors and production assistants organized last April by Boston Local 1228 who have been unable to negotiate a first contract.

A week before the Dec. 11 decision, the DNC warned the station that its sponsorship of the Dec. 19 debate could be in jeopardy following management's months-long refusal to schedule negotiations over adding newly-organized employees to the company's pension plan.

Jeff Bartlett, president and general manager of the Hearst-owned WMUR, received letters in the run-up to the pre-Christmas debate from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders urging him to settle his station's dispute with its employees.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is also running for president, went further, urging his Democratic opponents to pull their campaign ads from WMUR's air until the dispute was settled.

Local 1228 Business Manager Fletcher Fischer expressed gratitude for the support from the IBEW, DNC and the candidates themselves, but he said he wished the situation hadn't needed to escalate as far as it has.

"We're disappointed the station turned this into a national story when they could have simply moved the people into the Hearst pension to start with," he said. "It could have been a lot easier on everyone involved if they'd simply treated their employees fairly."

In a joint statement with N.H. Democratic Party Chair Buckley, the DNC's Wasserman Schultz expressed regret that WMUR was unwilling to move ahead with scheduling negotiations with the production department employees.

"It is the right to organize that made it possible for the middle class in America to grow over the past century, and it is as important today as it has ever been to keep our economic growth as a nation moving forward," she said.

The nationally televised Democratic debate featured Clinton, Sanders and O'Malley, but only the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper and St. Anselm College were co-sponsors. WMUR on-air talent were not allowed to participate as planned, nor did the broadcast feature any of the station's branding.

In a bargaining meeting the week after the debate, WMUR management met with Local 1228, but the company merely identified open issues and no bargaining proposals or responses to union proposals were addressed. Half of the members of the unit already have Hearst pensions, but the company is seeking to take away those pensions and replace them with a cheap substitute that would mean losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in their retirement future.

"What the DNC did by pulling the debate," said Fischer, "was to add thousands of people who are now watching this, and we hope the public attention will force WMUR to do the right thing for their employees."

Scheduled for Feb. 9, the New Hampshire presidential primary is expected to bring WMUR a windfall of more than $40 million in advertising revenue from candidates and affiliated organizations thanks to its status as the state's only television network.

"We hope the candidates will keep the pressure on and that WMUR will use some of these election year profits to treat their people fairly," Stephenson said.


Members of Local 1228 picket outside the Manchester, N.H., studios of WMUR in December. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders met with them on his way into the station.