NPR union employees ramp up campaign as contract deadline nears

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NPR employees represented by the SAG-AFTRA union and network management are closing in on a deadline Friday to agree on a new contract.

As the deadline neared, NPR’s union employees went public with details about negotiations. The We Make NPR website features a contact countdown clock and a letter to NPR CEO Jarl Mohn signed by 35 employees. In the letter, they say their previous contract “ensured proper working conditions, collaboration and collegiality, and an atmosphere of mutual respect” and that they’ve been “shocked” by efforts by negotiators for NPR management “to in effect rip it up.”

“We’ve been delighted by your focus on promoting NPR’s brand, on expanding the audience, on delivering great journalism, and improving relations with member stations,” the letter says. “But if your managers succeed at gutting the SAG-AFTRA contract, as they appear to be trying to do, they will do long-lasting and perhaps permanent damage to the culture that has made NPR, well, NPR. Everybody will lose — most of all our journalism and the public. We are writing to you directly, Jarl, hoping that you will intervene. We need to save the soul of NPR.”

The union employees are now covered by a “rolling agreement” that took effect after the previous contact, which was signed in 2015, expired June 30, according to Becky Sullivan, a member of the employees’ negotiating team and an associate producer for All Things Considered. The temporary agreement expires Friday at midnight.

SAG-AFTRA represents about 435 employees at NPR. It encompasses most newsroom jobs, including producers and on-air talent as well as digital positions, operations and librarians, according to Sullivan.  

Negotiations between SAG-AFTRA and NPR management have often been “relatively collegial” and concluded before deadline, according to Sullivan. But this time, “the company came out firing on all cylinders, basically trying to get a complete reset,” she said. “They came to us on day 1 with a completely rewritten contract where they’d gone through every sentence and made changes.”

“It’s never been this bad,” said Howard Berkes, a correspondent for NPR’s investigations unit who has participated in union negotiations and representation at the network for 36 years.

“This is an attempt to gut the SAG-AFTRA contract provisions and protections that have made NPR a decent place to work, and that paved the way for the success SAG-AFTRA journalists brought to NPR: 1200+ journalism awards; record audiences; double digit growth on every platform; and a budget surplus,” he said. “Instead of being recognized for that success, or minimally rewarded, we’re punched in the face with a contract proposal that devalues our work. I’ve never seen my colleagues so angry, so disappointed, so disheartened and so dispirited.”

“NPR and SAG-AFTRA are having productive discussions with the assistance of a federal mediator and continue to work toward a mutually satisfactory agreement that meets the needs of NPR’s employees and our operations,” NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara told Current. “Our goal is to make this organization economically sustainable for the long-term — and, importantly, enable NPR to invest more resources in expanding audiences, innovating its multi-platform journalism, and adding newsroom staff to meet that growth and support current staff.”

Among its desired changes, NPR management aims to reduce minimum starting salaries, according to Sullivan and SAG-AFTRA. In a few years, Sullivan said, “half the newsroom will be getting paid way more than the other half to do the same work.”

Salaries are also currently tied to positions, but under its proposed contract, management “wants to change that to a culture of negotiation,” according to Sullivan.

Management and union employees met with a federal mediator for the first time ever for a contract negotiation at NPR, Sullivan said. “Management still refused to budge on just about everything,” she said.

“They introduced language that would allow non-union NPR employees and people who don’t even work at NPR to do our work,” Sullivan said, citing “flexibility.” For example, the network wants more freedom to make production arrangements with non-union producers outside of NPR, she said.

Union members also started a petition on Change.org asking signers to “help to tell the management of NPR that they should value the people who make NPR.” The petition has more than 5,000 signatures. And they’ve taken to social media throughout negotiations, using the hashtag #WeMakeNPR.