Union members okay NPR cuts to forestall worse

Published in Current, April 27, 2009
By Mike Janssen

Staffers in both of NPR’s union bargaining units voted to approve last week a package of cost-cutting measures that management sought to cover budget shortfalls totaling $17 million over two years.

Union and nonunion employees in all NPR divisions will take furlough days, give up holidays and waive corporate contributions toward their retirement and health-care plans. The network aims to close an $8 million budget gap this fiscal year and a $9.1 million gap forecast for fiscal 2010. Employees will also forego pay raises previously slated for 2010.

In addition, the network announced last week that it laid off 13 employees, eliminated five open positions and froze another vacant 13 positions to further reduce expenses. If the unions hadn’t agreed to the other cost-savings, layoffs would have gone deeper, said Dana Davis Rehm, senior v.p. of marketing, communications and external relations.

“We’ve averted a major reduction in force that would have diminished us,” Rehm said.

When NPR President Vivian Schiller asked NPR staffers earlier this year to suggest cost-saving tactics, they favored reductions to benefits and compensation in lieu of deeper staff cuts, according to Rehm.

“Members are not happy, but they’re journalists, and they know what’s going on out there,” said Pat O’Donnell, executive director with the Washington–Baltimore chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. AFTRA represents 380 employees at NPR.

“They wanted to weather the storm within NPR, and they made it perfectly clear that we needed two things—one, to restore all the benefits within 17 months, and two, to protect from layoffs,” O’Donnell said.

The network had already laid off 64 employees in December, including some journalists. But no news staffers were among those laid off last week — the employees affected were in the network’s IT, legal and communications divisions. One news management job, director of afternoon programming, was eliminated in March.

NPR’s other union, the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians, okayed management’s cutbacks but plans to track the network’s finances in coming months to gauge whether the reductions have their intended effect. NPR fell short of convincing NABET reps that its budget woes were as pressing as they were made out to be, said Carrie Biggs-Adams, a staff rep with the local NABET chapter.

“You’re forecasting trouble, but it’s not that you necessarily have trouble,” she said. “You’re asking for a lot of trust.”

Beginning in July, research economists from the Communications Workers of America, NABET’s parent union, will review NPR’s balance sheets on a monthly basis.

“Acting to reduce our expenses before we incur deeper deficits is the only way to be fiscally responsible,” Rehm said. “It would not be acceptable to wait until we incurred a deeper deficit.”

The focus on temporary rather than permanent cuts reflects the network’s expectation that the economy will recover later next year, she said.

With the union contracts approved, all NPR employees will tighten their belts by roughly the same amount. Workers will take five furlough days and work three unpaid holidays this fiscal year. They will also give up three more holidays in fiscal 2010.

NPR will zero out contributions to employees’ 403(b) retirement accounts for the rest of this fiscal year and restore them to only 5 percent — half of its prior contribution—next year. The network will also eliminate contributions towards employees’ health-care premiums, known as flex credits, this year and next. However, AFTRA employees voted to recover half of their flex-credit contributions next year in exchange for taking two additional furlough days.

Employees will also waive pay raises slated for Jan. 1, 2010. Officers at NPR had already waived pay raises this year and gave up 403(b) contributions as of April 1. The officers will also forego pay for the last two weeks of fiscal 2009.

AFTRA members ratified their contract by a 90 percent majority vote (188-20) and extended its length to 18 months, ending Sept. 30, 2010. Of NABET members, 72 percent voted for approval. Their contract expires March 31, 2010.

Broadcast recording technicians represented by NABET also agreed to waive the union members’ exclusive jurisdictional rights to perform certain job functions for the duration of the new contract. They want to receive training in NPR’s digital wing, said NABET’s Biggs-Adams: “We want to make sure that we get a piece of the future.”                                  

Web page posted April 28, 2009
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC


Custody of the "NPR sound" was at stake in 2002. NABET in the end agreed to sharing of technical duties with journalists.

Technicians' union at odds with PBS and NPR, 2006.

NPR's unions share worries about job duties, audio quality, 2006.


The full terms of the ratified NPR-NABET contract and other materials were posted on NABET's website.

AFTRA/SAG Washington-Baltimore unit's website.

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