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At the trophy presentation following this year's Lipton Tennis Tournament, victor Andre Agassi waved his heartfelt gratitude to the legions of cheering fans. Being the deeply religious fellow that he is, at some point in the proceedings he more than likely raised his gaze skyward in thanks to an even higher power. If indeed he did stare up into that blue Key Biscayne sky on that Sunday afternoon in March, Agassi received a message from above. It said:
"Channel 10 Unfair to News Photographers."
Whether Agassi actually noticed the rented plane circling the stadium and pulling that banner is between him and his Maker, but for the thousands of tennis fans who did see it, the sign must have seemed a tad bewildering. After all, the labor troubles at WPLG-TV (Channel 10), Miami's ABC affiliate, have received no media attention. Which is why the union representing the station's 26 news photographers decided to make such a public airing of the station's internal problems.
For more than a year, the photographers have been working without a contract. They haven't received a raise in nearly three years. Paul Berkowitz, their attorney, says the station is trying to bust the union. "The issue here is acceptance of the union's continuing existence," says Berkowitz. "This station looks at photographers as if they are less than human. This company does not treat its people right."
Berkowitz charges that the Washington Post Company, which owns WPLG, wants to do away with International Photographers Local 666 so it can institute a series of changes that will greatly affect the staffers' ability to earn overtime and lead to abuses in work schedules. At present Channel 10 news photographers are guaranteed two consecutive days off each week. According to Berkowitz, the station wants to do away with that and other guarantees for which the union has fought hard. "What they are trying to do is take away the photographers' ability to have a decent and reasonable family life," says the attorney, adding that the company has refused to negotiate despite the union's offers to make concessions regarding scheduling and pay increases.
"I've always been willing to lay down my life for this station," says James Hosford, a photographer at WPLG since 1980 and the station's union shop steward. "I don't have an agent to negotiate for me like the anchors and reporters do. I need the union to represent me. And all I'm asking is that Channel 10 respect that. But they want to break the union."
John Garwood, general manager for WPLG, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Berkowitz says Garwood's silence is typical of the problems the union has experienced.
In turn, the union has begun an increasingly visible campaign against WPLG. It began with the plane rental in March; the Lipton Tennis Tournament was chosen because Channel 10 is a sponsor. Then on May 7, a group of photographers began handing out flyers outside several Miami area Eckerd outlets, explaining their plight and urging patrons not to shop at the drug store, a Channel 10 advertiser.
"That really ticked off Garwood," says Berkowitz.
It also caused considerable tension among other WPLG employees, including some of the photographers, several of whom responded to the boycott campaign by starting a move to decertify the union. Nine photographers signed a petition saying they did not believe the union had the confidence of a majority of the station's photographers and calling on federal officials to come to the station and conduct a vote.
"I just think it would be better for everyone if we didn't have a union," says photographer Donnie Dallas, who led the petition movement. "Negotiations were going nowhere. The whole union thing causes a lot of tension around the station."
The vote, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, was scheduled for June 30. If a majority of the 26 photographers had cast ballots against the union, Local 666 would no longer have been allowed to represent the photographers. Throughout May and June, the politicking at WPLG was intense, with station executives wining and dining photographers, promising them that if they abolished the union, they'd all get raises, Hosford and Berkowitz claim. Even station anchors became involved, with Dwight Lauderdale and Ann Bishop lobbying against the union.
"What I've done is ask our photographers what has the union done for them," says Lauderdale. "What I'm looking out for is the betterment of the entire newsroom. Paying union dues to someone who hasn't gotten you a raise in four years doesn't seem to make much sense. And all I asked is that the photographers should keep both sides accountable, and then they should make the best decision for themselves."
Last year Lauderdale successfully led the drive to toss out the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the union that had represented many of the station's reporters and anchors. He is not anti-union, Lauderdale stresses, noting that his father was a United Auto Workers union member in Detroit. "Those were different circumstances and different times," the anchorman says. As he sees it, the photographers are being fooled into thinking the union is looking out for their rights. "Don't believe for a moment that a union can protect you," Lauderdale says, adding that no other local television stations in town are unionized.
Indeed, no other stations' news personnel have union representation. But shop steward Hosford claims that as a result of the union's existence at Channel 10, photographers at the other stations receive many of the same benefits in order to remain competitive. If the union withdraws from WPLG, Hosford believes, every news photographer in Miami will feel the impact. (Not everyone at Channel 10 belongs to the union, either. Although all 26 WPLG photographers are covered by the union contract and receive union benefits, under Florida law joining a union and paying union dues is voluntary. At Channel 10 approximately one-third of the photographers have never formally joined and do not pay the required two percent of their gross salary as union dues.)
When ballots were distributed on June 30, the vote was fourteen to eleven in favor of retaining the union. Hosford says he wasn't surprised the tally was close, acknowledging that photographers were frustrated at going so long without a raise. But because the vote was so tight, Hosford and Berkowitz fear Channel 10 executives will continue to stall and refuse to negotiate a new contract in hopes of increasing the frustration level. Another decertification vote can be scheduled next June, if eight photographers call for it.
Which is why the union is expanding its boycott campaign. Picketers have targeted not only Eckerd stores, but Burdines, Circuit City, Sunshine Ford, Rooms To Go, and Winn Dixie. Last month the union received the backing of the Dade and Broward chapters of the AFL-CIO, both of which promised to urge members to boycott Channel 10 advertisers as well as the station itself.
Earlier this month, the union representing the 2400 nurses at Jackson Memorial Hospital and the Public Health Trust wrote the station expressing outrage. "Negotiations are a good-faith process," the nurses wrote. "As WPLG is so blatantly violating that good faith process by its intransigence in negotiations and its recalcitrant proposals, we have no alternative but to mobilize our members to support our sisters and brothers in Local 666."
Hosford says attacking the station and its advertisers was a very difficult decision for him. "We don't want to hurt Channel 10's reputation," he says, "but if this is the only way to get them to negotiate with us and to listen to us, then this is what we will have to do.