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Pittsburgh’s latest union? Confidential vote underway at WESA, WYEP

Pittsburgh Community Broadcast Center
Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Community Broadcast Center

Note: This story was reported and edited independently, with no input from WESA staff or management.

A union election is getting underway at Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corporation, where about half of the staff could soon be represented by the national group SAG-AFTRA.

“As a union town, Pittsburgh’s public radio stations should be union shops,” organizers said in a statement announcing their petition in August.

SAG-AFTRA, which stands for Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, represents thousands of broadcast professionals across the country, including the employees of several public media outlets. WHYY in Philadelphia and WBUR Boston workers voted to join SAG-AFTRA in 2019, and WAMU in Washington followed suit in 2020.

The proposed bargaining unit would cover 32 people who create broadcast and digital content for WESA and WYEP, including the stations’ editors, producers, reporters, hosts, and music directors. The National Labor Relations Board mailed them confidential ballots at 5pm Thursday; they’re due back on November 17.

Initial demands

The organizing group says wages need to be more equitable. Several have taken second jobs to supplement their income. They also want the company, whose staff is overwhelmingly white, to improve its approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. And they want to make the workplace more transparent and supportive.

“As professionals, we demand accountability, professionalism and respect from our employer,” organizers wrote in their petition. “We believe we should have meaningful input into our role in the station's future, and this is best accomplished through a formal collective-bargaining process.”

Several staff members were contacted about the effort but all declined to discuss the vote on the record.

Among the radio personalities backing the union push are Kevin Gavin, Host of WESA’s The Confluence; Joey Spehar, Host of WYEP’s Morning Mix, and WESA Senior Reporter Margaret Krauss.

“I’ve watched numerous talented staff members leave because they didn’t see a sustainable future for themselves,” Krauss said in the August statement. “My hope is that a union will help employees avoid burnout, and serve to strengthen our good journalism.”

“I invite PCBC management to invest in the content creators, the journalists, whom our listeners and members rely on, so we can continue to make a difference,” Gavin said.

Spehar said that “as a single parent, especially, I feel that organizing our labor force is the only way to ensure income equity, equality, and transparency and to ensure that we can not just survive, but thrive along with the organization we care so much about.”

Management response

The organizers were hoping for voluntary recognition of the union, but management referred the process to the National Labor Relations Board.

“We believe in the organized labor movement and respect every employee's right to select a representative if they so choose,” President Terry O’Reilly said in an email.

“At the same time, we believe that the only way to ensure that every employee's voice will be heard is through the NLRB's secret election process...and so we are encouraging all members of the proposed bargaining unit to vote,” he said.

O’Reilly said PCBC is not actively trying to convince employees one way or another. But he said that “personally,” he does “not believe bringing a union to this company at this moment in time is in the best interests of either the organization or of our employees.” He added that the company has “improved wages and benefits, and embraced a flexible work-life balance for our staff. There's no reason to believe that this process will not continue.”

But if employees do vote to unionize, O’Reilly says the company will bargain with them in good faith.

The work environment for people of color

Shortly after the initial petition was filed over the summer, there was an incident that organizers say highlights the need for a more inclusive environment for people of color and marginalized groups at the company.

A newsletter went out to WYEP listeners announcing a new logo design. “We think the blue goes well with our eyes,” the newsletter said. That’s according to reporting in the Pittsburgh City Paper.

“I don't think it's racist. I think it's cluelessness,” said Mike Canton, a former volunteer host with WYEP.

Canton had been one of the station’s two Black on-air music hosts. Two weeks before the newsletter, WYEP had canceled his music program, The Soul Show, which had been on air since 1995. The station said the decision was based on listener feedback, but there was an outpouring of support for Canton on social media, with some accusing WYEP of favoring its white audience members over people of color. But Canton understood it as a fair business decision.

“I understand when business is business and sometimes tough decisions are made, or knee-jerk decisions are made, in an effort to save the organization,” Canton told me in an interview this week. “I was less angry about that – or frustrated with that – than I was with what happened with the ‘blue eyed’ incident.”

Canton explained that it was especially painful because he had been trying to help WYEP become more inclusive and culturally sensitive for years.

“I have written a number of reminders and – I mean, really non-aggressive letters to them and lists of things that could be done better. And I did it as recently as maybe two weeks before I left. So when the ‘blue eye’ incident happened, I felt like this really proves that nobody is reading what I'm writing on the DEI committee or isn't processing it properly.”

Asked about the newsletter, PCBC President Terry O’Reilly described it as “an inadvertent and terrible choice of words by its author.

“We have dealt with this as an internal personnel matter,” O’Reilly said.

Union organizers described the timing as a coincidence. They explained that the incident was not a motivation for their union effort, which would not establish bargaining power for volunteers. (PCBC has 16 on-air volunteer hosts between the two stations, said Michele Klingensmith, a spokesperson for the company.)

However, they argued that a union could prevent similar incidents in the future by establishing greater transparency and better communication across the organization, and a stronger infrastructure of support for members of marginalized groups within the company.

The union push at PCBC comes as journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette take part in the city's first newspaper strike in 30 years.

“We live in a time where things are so tight for journalists and news organizations,” said Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University. “I'd love to see us get to a point where there's more benefit for journalists and for news organizations to tell the stories of our communities.”

Eligible employees will receive ballots in the mail over the next few days. If they vote “yes,” they would join a growing list of unionized public media shops across the country.

The National Labor Relations Board’s Pittsburgh office will count the votes at 1pm on Thursday, November 17.