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August 2017

'From Zero to 100 Percent'
Boston Sports Broadcasts are Now All IBEW

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After an unprecedented four-year organizing drive, Boston Local 1228 successfully organized the entire market for sports broadcast technicians in New England.

It all started because someone laughed at Steve Katsos.

It was 1994 and Katsos was finishing up college and began freelance work as a field audio technician in and around Boston, setting up the studio and field microphones and other equipment that capture the sound of professional sports events.

Katsos noticed something weird about the jobs. He could set up the same equipment, in the same stadium for the same sport but on some days, he made $100 and on others he made $200. So he asked a co-worker, why am I making twice the money in the same building?

The $200 were union jobs, required by contracts signed by other technicians living in other cities. It made no sense to Katsos.

"So, I asked him, 'How do we make ALL our shows union?'" Katsos said. "And the guy laughed and said, 'Good luck.'"

It's not that he was a bad guy, Katsos said, but the laughter stuck with him.

"I didn't understand why anyone would take half the money. But we did. For decades," he said. "But that laughter was like a seed that was planted."

Now, 23 years later, every televised broadcast with a ball or a puck, on grass, wood or ice in Boston, is produced by the nearly 500 broadcast technician members of Boston Local 1228.

There have been five successful elections at five companies and, in April, a first contract was ratified 98-8 with the final company to be organized. The success in Boston is part of the 20 percent growth in the IBEW's broadcast membership over the last five years.

"This is a feat. This is big. To go from zero to 100 percent union in such a short period of time and get contracts is something we can all be proud of," said IBEW's Broadcasting and Telecommunications Director Martha Pultar. "As a Boston girl, I'm thrilled."

'It was the Wild West'

The deals cover the array of specialist positions including camera operators, font assistants, sound technicians, instant replay operators, assistant directors, stage managers, graphic designers, technical directors and utilities.

The Boston area is home to five major league sports teams: the Bruins, Patriots, Revolution, Red Sox and Celtics. They play 188 home games a year. Local Division I colleges add about 100 more. Each needs a crew to get it on screen. Sometimes the crew will be small, sometimes it will include dozens of people.

And until four years ago, Katsos said, every job was paid differently. People doing the same task — one for the home team broadcast, one for the away — could make different rates. Sometimes the $45 parking fee for Fenway was reimbursed, sometimes it wasn't.

"Every time there is a game, there is a home feed and a visitor feed to wherever they came from and, if there is a national broadcast, there is a third feed and all of them need their own crew," said Local 1228 Business Manager Fletcher Fischer.

The feeds are produced by companies that bought the rights for the broadcast. Comcast SportsNet New England, a subsidiary of NBCUniversal, owns the broadcast rights for the Celtics. The Kraft Sports Group owns the rights to distribute the Revolution, the MLS soccer team. New England Sports Network owns the rights for the Sox and the Bruins.

In the past, the people who owned the rights to broadcast a game would employ the people who could do it. But now they employ a handful of salespeople and since at least the '80s, they have relied on an army of freelancers to do the actual work.

It made business sense. No sport goes year-round, so why keep full-time employees on the books when your sport isn't running? For example, during long stretches of the summer, only the Sox and the Revolution are in season, but in early fall, nearly all of the teams are playing.

A new kind of company stepped into the gap: the crewer.

Crewers have the giant rolodexes of specialists that give modern sports production their look and sound. Some crewers, like PPI, are enormous operations with locations across the country. Others, like MJN Productions, are more mom-and-pop operations, often in a single city.

What the crewers working in union-dense Boston all had in common in 2013 was that their workforce was entirely nonunion. Local TV stations were organized, but the pool of about 400 sports broadcast technicians were not.

"The crewer wields a lot of power," said Broadcasting International Representative Neil Ambrosio. "Home teams and away teams call them. You have to play nice with everyone because you want to work."

Sometimes, the away team had signed a union contract with their local production team requiring them to use union technicians on away games. That is where the $100 difference came from. Same crewer, hiring people with the same skills, for different rates.

"Every job was different and you couldn't negotiate anything," Katsos said. "It was the Wild West."

A Nonunion Market in One of the
Most Unionized Cities in America

Four years ago, Boston Local 1228's Fischer, then-Second District International Vice President Frank Carroll and Pultar committed to changing that.

"We started reaching out to the freelancers and asking them how they wanted to proceed," Fischer said.

They held meetings at locations around Boston. And they approached Katsos to help run the campaign.

After 20 years in the business, Katsos basically knew all 400 people that would be eligible to join. And, more importantly, he understood what stood in their way.

"Fear," Katsos said. "Fear is a wall. Fear stops things from growing."

For most of his career, even though he had been working without a union contract, Katsos had just been happy that this was his job. Something changed. He was 23 years in and had no retirement, no contract, no benefits and other people, in other cities, doing the same work, did. So why did he accept it when they didn't?

All the reasons people used to argue against forming a union — getting blackballed, being treated unfairly, having a manager give a friend work instead of you — had all happened to him anyway. And when it did, if he fought it — he did it alone.

He had a breakthrough.

"Why didn't we ask for more? We were afraid we wouldn't work. Why didn't the crewer ask for the money to pay us more? They were afraid the rights-holder would go somewhere else. But then I realized the rights-holders were afraid too: that we would walk off and they wouldn't have a show," Katsos said. "Everyone was afraid and no one was talking."

When Fischer and Ambrosio asked him to step up, something had shifted inside him. The seed, maybe.

"I will put my neck out and I will risk my career if I have to be the one screaming from the mountaintops about how we have been treated. I will make sure the difference will be me," Katsos said. "This is not how I have been, this is how I am now. No one will threaten me. I cannot be pressured. I will not be afraid."

After a few rounds of conversations, a strategy developed. The focus would not be on individual crewing companies but on the people who did the work. They would organize company by company, of course, but they would offer all of them essentially the same deal. And they would have a unified message to every tech in the region.

"Unity is what gives workers the freedom to negotiate good contracts, so everyone matters and we need everyone," Pultar said.

But they had to start somewhere and when the national crewing company Program Productions, Inc. moved into Boston, they had their first target.

PPI was new to the market. PPI already classified their workers as part-time employees (they withheld taxes and workers filed W2 forms), not as independent contractors. Under the National Labor Relations Act, independent contractors cannot organize into a union. In some cities, PPI already had contracts with the IBEW and the company owner, Robert E. Carzoli, was the son of an IBEW member.

"It was a good plan," Pultar said. "It was pragmatic and on the level with each crewing company: you will not get a better or worse deal than anyone else. And we said that to the workers too."

Anyone who had worked at least five days in the last year for PPI was eligible to vote and would form the bargaining unit. They collected cards, set a date for the vote, won the vote and by November 2014 they had a contract signed.

They moved next on MJN productions, which is also owned by a longtime IBEW member, Michael Nathanson. As with PPI, there was an election followed by a first contract signed in November 2015.

"We said to them that everyone else working in the stadium has a contract but you. The players, the coaches, the announcers, the ticket takers, the beer sellers. Why not you?" Ambrosio said. "You work 80 games at $500 a game, that's $40,000. What other transaction worth $40,000 would you do without a contract? You do it because they tell you it is normal, and for years freelancers made it normal. But it's your future, not theirs, without a safety net, and that should not be normal."

The message resonated. Because technicians worked for several different crewers, often in the same week, each new election would include some technicians who had already voted in previous, successful elections.

"It built momentum and organizing is built on momentum," Pultar said. "When you are trying to flip an entire city, you need a lot of momentum."

They organized out-of-town crewer LDM Worldwide in Seattle, and signed a first contract in 2016.

The most significant challenge, Fischer said, was a crewer called Greenline. They classified their technicians as 1099-filing contractors. Greenline fought the vote, claiming they were rightly classifying the techs as contractors. Local 1228 and Greenline made their arguments before the National Labor Relations Board in 2016. In a landmark decision, the NLRB sided with the workers, ruling that in the eyes of the law, they were employees and had the right to organize.

"That was the first time we had ever fought a bargaining unit W-2 v. 1099 case before the board," Fischer said. "That was a very substantial ruling."

Greenline was the last. They signed a contract in April and it was ratified 98-8.

"Fletcher looked at the challenge in a new way and used all the resources of the IBEW to solve it," Pultar said. "The victory is the workers', but we owe a lot to Fletcher and Steve."

Don't Look at Our Promises, Look at Our Results

By the time the Greenline contract was approved, Local 1228 was already negotiating new contracts with the first organized crewers.

The first contracts, as promised, treat every employer about the same. Where there are differences they are the result of the different ways places do business.

"The first agreement is always the toughest, but Fletcher and his team did a great job bargaining the deal. We now have an area standards agreement. You want to do TV in Boston, this is what it costs. The head of PPI had concerns the IBEW contract would make him uncompetitive in the market, leading to a loss of work; to the contrary he's grown his business," Ambrosio said. "Today in Boston, crewers win their clients on customer service, the producers, and their relationships, not by nickel-and-diming freelancers."

There is a grievance procedure — a first — and regular raises, which were intermittent and not evenly spread. The contract includes consistent job descriptions so more work gets a technician more money. And they get reimbursed for parking.

Which is all wonderful, Katsos said, and there has been another benefit: the fear is lifting.

After they signed a contract with a crewer, Katsos does not want to say which, the workers noticed some inconsistencies in how productions were being staffed. Some people weren't getting jobs they thought they deserved. People thought, Katsos said, the company was playing games.

Katsos met with the head of the company and his lawyer and they talked. They explained the business reason for what was going on, and why it made sense for the company to do what they were doing. They talked about ways to accommodate the needs of both the business and the members and left happy.

"We never had those meetings before to solve problems together. It would not have been possible. With the union, it takes down the barrier of fear so we could speak freely," Katsos said. "That was special."

Pultar hopes that this message will get out. There are other markets out there that look like Boston did four years ago.

"We don't have to tell nonunion techs to look at our promises, we can tell them to look at our results," Pultar said. "Many people have this idea that organizing in the gig economy is hard. We have had a model for going on 30 years that works, and we are expanding on it."


Freelance broadcast technicians working at every Boston stadium, including Fenway Park, are now members of Boston Local 1228 after a successful four-year drive.


For years the editors, camera operators, producers and sound techs put Bruins games on the air without a contract.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user s.yume


Now, all the companies that put together the broadcast crews, including for Patriots' games at Gillette Stadium, have signed contracts with Local 1228.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user David Salafia




Audio producer Steve Katsos, top, was the lead organizer for the campaign that brought in Fenway Audio Assistant Jon Lukason (middle) and Fenway Park Stage Manager Phil Robinson, above.


The contracts cover major league football, hockey, soccer, baseball and basketball. Local 1228 is also signing contracts for colleges and regional teams.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Wikimedia Commons user UserKtr101