Local 600 Battling for Basic Rights in Newsrooms Nationwide

By Jeremy Kehoe

March 22, 2023
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A sandwich board. A QR code. A T-shirt and a hat. An online petition. A billboard. These are the simple but impactful tools IATSE brothers and sisters in broadcast newsrooms nationwide are using on the negotiation frontlines in their ongoing battle to secure fair wages, decent working conditions, and basic respect on the job from their conglomerate owners.

As behemoths like Sinclair, Nexstar, Tegna, and CMG Apollo continue to consolidate stations and squeeze employees, they have simultaneously sparked a new breed of union activists and a renewed burst in activism and solidarity at the national and local levels among veteran IATSE members that is paying real dividends at the bargaining table.

Leading the organizational charge of Local 600 represented broadcast photojournalists and editors at the national level is Local 600 Western Region Senior Business Representative Raquel Ruiz.

“Your employer is not going to give you a good contract or a good raise just because they’re good people or because they want to,” Ruiz said. “You’ll have to take it from them. Part of my job is to create a negotiation mindset that members are going to have to battle for every right and concession from their employer.”

Because all negotiations are local, Ruiz says her job is to equip IATSE brothers and sisters with the tools to organize and empower them with the negotiation strategies they can then tailor to their unique market needs and execute to maximize their impact.

At KTLA-TV (Los Angeles), the largest broadcast group Local 600 represents, negotiations with Nexstar have been at a stalemate since August with no resolution – or counteroffer from Nexstar – in sight. Rodney Gilmore, KTLA’s recently elected chief steward and Local 600 member since 1991, said the physical and emotional support from Ruiz and others at the national level has been critical.

“Raquel (Ruiz) in particular has a great deal of fire, and she has a way of motivating us to see just how much influence we can have on the company by engaging together,” Gilmore said. “She has made us realize we are a highly trained, professional group of people who deserve to be treated with a great deal more respect than we have been.”

At KTLA, members have been showing up to work every day in Local 600 hats and T-shirts, and most recently moved their member meetings to the street in front of the station in their fight to secure simple cost-of-living salary increases (KTLA pays below market rate, and members have not received a pay raise in seven years) and align their sick days and vacation days with Nexstar’s corporate policy.

“I’ve been here since 1991, and this is the longest it has taken for us to negotiate a contract,” said Gilmore. “(Nexstar) is stonewalling completely. There’s a lot of frustration because we feel (Nexstar) is simply not negotiating in good faith. They simply don’t give us any response. Nothing. It’s like they’re trying to get us to pit ourselves against ourselves, which is a very odd and disrespectful strategy.”

A Constant Battle for Basic Rights

Recent negotiations at news stations in San Francisco (KPIX), Seattle (KOMO), and Portland (KGW) are examples of what can be accomplished once members harness and focus their collective union power.

At KPIX Local 600 members recently secured a 3 percent raise with a signing bonus for members – with just four members in its bargaining unit leading negotiations. Tthat contract campaign proved that building solidarity within the Local 600 members and with other unions at stations, such as IBEW 45, will help win better contracts.

At KOMO Local 600 shop steward and newsroom photographer Madelyn Hastings spearheaded Local 600’s years-long contract negotiations with Sinclair, stepping up in the final months to organize and motivate members to stand together and increase up the pressure to secure wage increases, maintain staffing levels, and strengthen safety protocols for in-the-field photographers – all while pregnant.

Hastings literally took KOMO’s demands to the streets to build awareness and support.

“My husband and I one weekend went down to Staples and got three giant sandwich boards, and we wrote on them ‘Sinclair Unfair’ and put giant QR codes on them that led to a link to a petition that people could scan and laid out what we were fighting for and what we’ve been through since the pandemic hit,” Hastings said. “We just stood outside our station, which happened to be at the end of the (Seattle Pride) Parade with our sandwich boards and handed out flyers with that QR code that people could scan as they walked by. The response was overwhelming.”

As was the payoff.

“We got a lot of signatures for that petition that we were able to present at the negotiating table (with Sinclair), and that got us a lot of momentum because they came back the very next meeting with flat-base raises which were much more than what they originally offered us,” Hastings said.

Local 600 members secured an average salary increase ranging from 5.5 percent to 7.8 percent over three years, increased the minimum hire rates of regular, full-time employees, secured an increase in the amount of notice required for the employer to change the employee’s schedule, and improved health and safety contract language.

Unity and solidarity (every news station in Seattle backed KOMO’s photographers) and a mission to preserve future employee rights are constant motivators, Hastings said.

“I wasn’t necessarily fighting for myself or my colleagues but for the people who come after me, especially the younger photographers and trying to make it a better station for the next generation of photographers,” Hastings said. “There’s definitely going to be more folks like me coming in after me.”

Like their brothers and sisters at KTLA, Local 600’s negotiations with owner Nexstar at WJW FOX 8 in Cleveland have stalled after 10 unsuccessful rounds, and they are now headed to mediation.

Local 600 members at WJW have been working without a contract for five years. They are fighting for the bare minimum: a cost-of-living wage increase, preventing the complete elimination of minimum staffing guarantees (WJW delivers 13 hours of programming each day with just 16 staff members), and basic safety protections for photojournalists like those on-site at the recent toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Emmy-award-winning photojournalist and 20-year Local 600 member Erica Gustafson said Nexstar’s refusal to grant even these basic requests leaves a bitter taste, especially knowing Nexstar reported $5.2 billion in revenue and $1.5 billion in profit in 2022.

“What we’re asking for is not a lot, just some very small concessions from Nexstar – basic job security and a very modest cost-of-living salary increase given that we haven’t had a raise in over five years,” Gustafson said. “(Nexstar’s response) is kind of insulting, and it’s disappointing because we have a really good relationship with our day-to-day managers, and that’s because we do a really good job. I don’t think there’s a single photog on our staff who hasn’t won some kind of award. We do amazing work. And then to turn around and have those same managers tell us that the most basic job security and basic cost of living increases are somehow out of reach for us is kind of a slap in the face, especially for the younger staff who want to stay here for a long time and build a career here.”

Despite Nexstar’s hardline tactics Local 600 members have been hitting the streets and taking their case to the community, recently braving the snow and cold to join a tailgate at a Cleveland Browns game where they handed out flyers with a QR code that residents could scan to fill out an online petition supporting them. Local 600 also posted a billboard on I-480 with that same QR code to increase the pressure on Nexstar to negotiate in good faith.

“Whatever it takes for us to hang on to what we need we’re going to do, because we’re not asking for much,” Gustafson said. “We’ll definitely have enough fight in us to do that.”

KTLA members recently took time to express solidarity with their Cleveland brethren to scan a QR code that sent a message to the Fox 8 tip line, which is how the station receives most of its story ideas. That QR code tied up the station’s email boxes for several weeks to the point where it made it difficult to get stories assigned.

“We did that to let those union brothers and sisters there know we understand what they’re going through because we’re going through it too,” KTLA’s Gilmore said. “We wanted to buoy their spirits and let them know they’re not alone.”

In the end, Ruiz says, the key to a successful negotiation is knowing both sides bargained in good faith and gave a little more than they wanted.

“I was always taught that a really good contract is when both sides walk away feeling that they gave all they could give,” Ruiz says. “Because you get every last drop of blood out of a turnip when you’re really in a good negotiation. I’m ecstatic (about the future) compared to even a few years ago. There’s a lot more solidarity. The younger generation has really stepped up, and I’m really excited about that.”

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