A push to unionize at the oral-history organization StoryCorps is dividing staff and management, with employees facing objections from leadership as they push for higher wages and more transparency in decision-making.
Two employees who spoke with Current said a group of staffers first contacted the Communications Workers of America late last year to begin organizing a union. Employees laid out their desires in a mission statement calling for more openness about organizational decisions and “transparent policies” governing hirings, firings and reporting and negotiating grievances.
The staffers are also seeking “fair and just compensation for all staff” and regular cost-of-living increases in salaries, among other requests.
But StoryCorps management doesn’t believe a union is the best option to address the issues raised by staff. StoryCorps spokesperson Blake Zidell said in a statement that “the organization can best address the core issues expressed by the employees hoping to unionize — including their desire to have more of a say in organizational decision-making — outside of the unionizing process.”
However, Zidell added that “leadership respects staff’s right to unionize” and will recognize the union if staffers vote to join.
Efforts to address grievances
Based in Brooklyn, N.Y. StoryCorps collects interviews and personal stories of Americans from different backgrounds in recording booths across the country. Public radio listeners know StoryCorps through its weekly segments on Morning Edition that often inspire tears, laughter or both.
Some of its pro-union staffers say they’re unhappy with management’s communication efforts. When StoryCorps laid off staff last year after funding cuts, management didn’t explain the organization’s financial situation to staff, said Haley Shaffer, a senior associate for StoryCorps’ Custom Services department. Staff lacked “a channel … to bring their frustrations to management,” she said.
Zidell declined to discuss details of the cuts with Current but said management “took pains to explain to staff in small groups and at all staff meetings the reasons for the layoffs.” On an annual basis, StoryCorps’ management also shares information about financials and discusses past performance and the outlook for the upcoming year, Zidell said.
Staffers have been involved in strategic planning and committees recommending changes at the organization, said Yosmay del Mazo, a community engagement associate for StoryCorps based in San Francisco. But “what came out of that was very limited, or nothing at all happened,” he said.
In response, StoryCorps’ Zidell said the organization’s board incorporated staff recommendations into a strategic plan adopted at the beginning of 2016 that included raises and other benefits.
After organizers found a majority of staffers wanted to unionize, they asked StoryCorps’ executive team to voluntarily recognize the union. Shortly after, CWA filed a petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board according to Shaffer.
Staffers told management in a letter that they would drop their petition to the NLRB if management would voluntarily recognize the union, Shaffer said. But organizers and management disagreed over how many of the organization’s 95 full- and part-time employees were eligible to join the union. Organizers proposed 30 staffers, Shaffer said, including all non-managerial staff.
“We didn’t know on what grounds StoryCorps called a hearing with the NLRB other than to contest the unit,” Shaffer said. “Once in the hearing, we learned that they wanted to argue that half of the unit shouldn’t be eligible.”
“StoryCorps felt, as the NLRB itself does, that the best indicator of employee sentiment is a secret ballot election conducted by the NLRB,” said Zidell of StoryCorps. “The fact that there was a hearing is simply due to the fact that the CWA and StoryCorps have different views as to voter eligibility. In accordance with usual procedure, the NLRB has to conduct a hearing in such circumstances and decide who is eligible to vote.” The NLRB will decide which employees are eligible and set a date for the election.
Staffers seeking to unionize say management has tried to discourage their efforts. At one meeting, executives tried to “paint the union as a small group of idealistic folks,” del Mazo said. “It was a very tense meeting.” (“From StoryCorps’ perspective, this is not true; management didn’t try to ‘paint the union’ in any fashion,” Zidell said.)
In a June 5 email sent to all staff and obtained by Current, management announced meeting times for staff to discuss “how unions work and StoryCorps management’s point of view on these issues.”
The email did not say the meetings were mandatory. But employees were “led to believe they were compulsory,” said Justin Williams, a community engagement associate at StoryCorps, in an email. “… [O]ur managers checked in with each of us telling us [to] sign up for one of the sessions.”
Employees “have not been forced to attend anti-union meetings,” Zidell said. “We held one informational briefing to outline for all staff the election process and timeline. This session was optional. It was open to staff who are eligible to organize, as well as managers, and offered at multiple times, to allow as many employees as possible to attend it.”
Williams and del Mazo said that at one meeting StoryCorps CEO Robin Sparkman said, “This is not a debate. If you want to get legal about it, this is what is called a ‘captive audience.’ We ask you just to listen.”
“The session included an open floor for questions at the end,” Zidell said. “Everyone was new to the process and terminology around collective bargaining, and StoryCorps leadership regrets calling it a ‘captive audience’ meeting, which it wasn’t.”
CEO cites “serious blow” to culture
In a May 30 email obtained by Current and confirmed by Zidell, StoryCorps President Dave Isay explained his views about a possible union to employees.
“I am deeply concerned that bringing in a union will deliver a serious blow to our work and culture,” he wrote. “That it will build walls, harden divisions, create a more regimented and formal workplace, and foster an increasingly adversarial culture.”
“Bringing in a union will make it that much more difficult for us to see through this already improbable dream of creating a country that honors and celebrates each other’s lives through listening,” Isay said.
Isay said he “can be a deeply flawed listener” and acknowledged that “salaries are not where any of us want them to be.” He added that increasing salaries was “a top (if not the top) organizational priority” at StoryCorps.
“For 14 years we’ve been trying to do two things: One is to build this institution to collect stories and honor people’s lives and connect and heal us,” Isay told Current. “The second thing is to build a workplace that advances the mission and is in itself a great place to work. I think we’ve done pretty well on the first front. It’s hard to learn we’ve fallen shorter than we knew on the second goal. But we’re committed whether the union forms or not to redouble our efforts to get it right.”
“The folks who are unionizing deeply believe in the mission of the organization,” Shaffer said. “This isn’t an act of aggression, or an action to try and hurt the organization. It’s an act of love for an organization that we all care deeply about and want to flourish.”
“We still feel very determined and optimistic for the next steps,” Shaffer said.