TV chain Nexstar splits workers with different raise offers, shifts cash to shareholders
The KOIN newsroom in Portland, Ore. | Ross William Hamilton / The Oregonian via AP

In another example of enormous corporate greed, a rich Texas-based TV chain—one whose own financial statements point to close to $2 billion in revenue in the first nine months of this year—is offering raises of 1 percent to workers at one of its New York state TV stations, and 0.1 percent to workers at KOIN-TV in Portland, Ore.

And those skimpy sums get put on the bargaining table only when Nexstar Media Group is forced to hold talks with the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET)-CWA locals who represent the workers at its stations in Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y., Portland, Erie, Pa., and Youngstown, Ohio. In Syracuse, the National Labor Relations Board had to do exactly that, leaders of the NABET locals say.

Needless to say, the workers aren’t happy with this state of affairs. Nexstar offered the 84 Syracuse workers the 1 percent raise for each year of a 3-year pact—and demanded givebacks from the workers on company hiring rights and premiums to be paid for workers temporarily in higher-grade jobs.

That offer, the first in months after NABET won that NLRB ruling, was rejected. Meanwhile, the old Syracuse contract, which expired 18 months ago, stays in effect, but key worker protections, such as grievances, are stalled.

At Buffalo’s WIVB-TV, bargaining has foundered over Nexstar’s about-face on paid leave to work out management-labor differences.

When it bought WIVB, Nexstar inherited a policy from the former owner that said where the two sides were working on a cooperative project—such as negotiations—the station would still pay the union bargainers. If the two were in an adversarial face-off, it wouldn’t.

Five months ago, Nexstar dumped that policy—and presented the union with an $8,700 bill to cover back pay for NABET’s own employee bargainers. Negotiations covering the station’s 60 workers have stalled.

The situation is even worse—if you can believe it—at KOIN, says local President Carrie Biggs-Adams, whose local represents TV station workers from San Francisco northwards.

Biggs-Adams also has a basis for comparison nationwide. Until recently she was a top worker at NABET-CWA headquarters in D.C. and has 45 years of experience negotiating for workers and organizing them, too.

KOIN offered its workers the 0.1 percent hike, and that wasn’t all, she said. It wants to cut severance pay to two weeks. And in the first quarter of this year, Nexstar yanked company-paid cell phones, which gave stored numbers for sources and stored locations for stories, from broadcast reporters and techs who need both.

Staffers can now check out company phones one by one, “or use their own phones, for which they get $45 a month” from Nexstar to pay for texts, stories, and downloads. Since TV downloads are expensive, workers “have to eat” any extra costs, Biggs-Adams says.

Nexstar would impose more extra costs on NABET by making the union—not the company—responsible for precisely checking and following every single state, local, and federal law before filing grievances on various issues, including discrimination. One slip-up or small omission and the grievance gets tossed.

The coup de grace, however, is in a non-financial area. In the #MeToo era, where opposition to sexual harassment on the job has become a nationwide cause, Nexstar wants to eliminate the current contract’s protections against job discrimination, by sex, race, or anything else. “They won’t go beyond federal law,” Biggs-Adams says.

The company, meanwhile, has other uses for its millions. In its public financial statement, Nexstar’s revenue totaled $693 million in the third quarter of the year, 13.3 percent more than in the third quarter of 2017. It earned $485 million in the first nine months of this year—a 31.4 percent jump—on $1.97 billion in overall revenue nationwide since Jan. 1.

As for what it wants to do with the money, besides not paying workers, Nexstar CEO Perry Sook said in the statement the network would “apply our growing free cash flow to drive shareholder returns…In the third quarter we allocated a total of approximately $180 million to return of capital, leverage reduction, and strategic M&A initiatives.”

“M&A” stands for “mergers and acquisitions,” and Biggs-Adams suspects she knows where. From broadcast industry sources, she believes Nexstar is angling to buy the Tribune Company’s stations, after federal regulators quashed a prior big Tribune sale.

Biggs-Adams doubts Nexstar would succeed, though, because its acquisition of Tribune’s stations would put it over Federal Communications Commission limits on market concentration, just as the prior Tribune sale that collapsed did.

Still, “the impact on workers is pretty massive, and it’s a structural problem with the capitalist system,” she says. It’s especially acute, she notes, when hedge funds take over media chains, run them for 18 months while milking profits by slashing staff, then selling them.

That’s what’s happened, Biggs-Adams notes, at KOIN.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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