Fighting Back Against Union-Busting at KGTV

Members of NABET-CWA Local 54 who work at KGTV Channel 10 in San Diego have had a contract with the McGraw-Hill-owned station since it went on the air in 1953. While there were a few minor scuffles along the way, there was never a major dispute and the union and company enjoyed a unique partnership that maintained KGTV as a market leader.

That all changed in the Fall of 2005. KGTV cancelled the scheduled “informal” negotiations with Local 54 and hired a law firm that brags on its website about providing union-free environments. Managers started having discussions with individual employees. The topics: “Having a union was useful at one time, but those days have passed,” and “If you had to vote for a union today, I don’t think you would.”

And that’s exactly what KGTV was up to. They intended to frustrate employees to the point that they gave up and decertified their union. But the employees said,
“I don’t think so.”

In early January of 2006 – with the contract set to expire at the end of month – KGTV put forth a devastating set of proposals intended to replace union jobs with non-union jobs. When the union proposed finding middle ground, managers said, “There is no middle ground.” KGTV eventually presented a final offer that Local 54 members turned down unanimously. Instead of returning to the bargaining table, KGTV implemented its offer and Local 54 members began a mobilization campaign. The station’s response? 'Nobody cares about a small group of people in San Diego. This will die out in a couple of months.'

Local 54’s mobilization campaign took a two-pronged approach: Reduce KGTV’s revenue and ratings. We set up a website dedicated to the campaign: 10NewsUnfair.com.

On the revenue side, we explained the situation to Channel 10’s advertisers and asked them to drop their ad campaigns. Our members passed out informational handbills in front of stores that continued to advertise. KGTV managers were dispatched to these stores to try and intimidate our members into leaving. They didn’t. By the end of 2006, KGTV lost nearly a million dollars in ad sales.

On the ratings front, bumper stickers, yard signs and mobile billboards all directed the public to 10NewsUnfair.com. The San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council got out the word to the County’s 192,000 union families to “Turn off 10News.” By the end of 2006, KGTV dropped from its familiar #1 spot in the ratings.

KGTV still refused to return to the bargaining table and turned the heat up on employees, disciplining anyone seen as a union supporter, including most of the Executive Board. But the members continued their mobilization activities.

The National Labor Relations Board – not very union-friendly under President Bush – forced KGTV to settle charges that managers threatened and intimidated employees; interfered with lawful union activities (handbilling); spied on union activities (rallies) and installed cameras at work to observe employees without negotiating with the union. They had to turn the cameras off.

By mid-2007, KGTV agreed to return to the bargaining table. The union again tried to find middle ground. KGTV responded by making their proposals even worse, declaring an impasse and implementing the proposals. Local 54 members continued their mobilization activities and KGTV lost another million dollars in advertising sales and slipped even more in the ratings.

McGraw-Hill was disappointed that KGTV general manager Derek Dalton was unable to bust the union and axed him at the end of the year. By mid-2008, McGraw-Hill Broadcasting President Ed Quinn met the same fate. But KGTV still refused to return to the bargaining table and Local 54 members continued their mobilization.

When the polls closed on election night in 2008, the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council put a boycott against KGTV into effect. The Labor Council asked working-family-friendly candidates not to grant interviews to the station. None did and it put a real dent into coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election. Both the boycott and the solidarity of elected officials continued until the end of 2009.

In early 2009, NABET-CWA obtained a copy of KGTV’s Union Decertification Campaign Plan and posted portions on our website. The documents outline a chilling campaign by managers designed to influence employees to withdraw support for their Union. The documents include management-created profiles of each employee, listing them by race, age, gender and a “fear” (such as loss of family medical benefits or even loss of job) that could be used to intimidate the employee.

Local 54 members fought back, posting their profiles on our website along with their own comments. Parts of the documents were also shared with elected officials, letting them know they were supporting a just cause. KGTV and McGraw-Hill managers have spent a lot of time, energy and money denying their union-busting tactics, but these documents were impossible to defend.

In mid-2009, the union began holding protests at locations where the station was airing live news reports. The protesters simply chanted “10NewsUnfair.com.” Rather than air the protests, KGTV cut back on their “live shots,” many times doing the reports from the safety of the station parking lot. The station tried to get an injunction to stop the protests, but they were deemed legal.

But KGTV still refused to return to the bargaining table or even meet with union officials or third parties to try and resolve the issues. And Local 54 members continued their mobilization campaign. By the end of 2009, there was another million dollars of lost advertising revenue and some KGTV newscasts had slipped to 5th place in the ratings. McGraw-Hill Broadcasting turned in its worst performance in decades, with new President Darrell Brown telling employees, “For the first time in our history, we actually lost money.”

In 2010, The California Labor Federation sanctioned a statewide boycott of McGraw-Hill’s KGTV because of their “involvement in a union-busting campaign and unfair contract negotiations with NABET-CWA.” This encouraged candidates running for political office to refrain from advertising on the station. By the end of the year, KGTV’s advertising losses were around $1.5 million, the majority from political ads. The first known economic boycott of a California television station was deemed a success and the ratings were still suffering.

Not bad for a small group of employees in San Diego that “nobody cares about.”

As we begin 2011, KGTV still refuses to return to the bargaining table or even talk about resolution and Local 54 members continue their mobilization campaign. Visit 10NewsUnfair.com to show support or nabetcwa54.org to follow the behind-the-scenes action.