Judge rules against Rhode Island PBS in dispute with engineers’ union

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An administrative judge ordered Rhode Island PBS July 23 to stop “unfair labor practices” after the station was found guilty of violating labor law during a dispute with an employee union last year.

David Goldman, a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge, ruled that the Providence station must recognize the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1228 as representing technicians and engineers on its staff and negotiate with the union. Management was also told to stop withholding information from the union and “interrogating” employees about their union affiliation.

Rhode Island PBS CEO David Piccerelli declined to say whether the station would appeal the decision. The station has until Aug. 20 to appeal.

Piccerelli declined to comment on the relationship between the union and management. “It is a policy of our organization that we do not discuss or comment on any employee-related issues,” Piccerelli said in an email to Current.

IBEW Local 1228 had filed an NLRB complaint against the station in August 2017 alleging unfair labor practices. At the time, IBEW represented seven engineers and technicians at the station. It has represented station employees since the early 1980s, according to the ruling.

The complaint said Rhode Island PBS officials had “failed and refused to bargain in good faith” after months of efforts to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. The station withdrew recognition of the union in October 2017, according to court documents.

The ruling said that Fletcher Fischer, business manager of IBEW Local 1228, contacted Piccerelli in March 2017 about raising employee wages in anticipation of the station receiving proceeds from the upcoming FCC spectrum auction. Rhode Island PBS ended up receiving $94 million for selling its spectrum. It put the funds into an endowment after paying for repairs and expenses related to switching to a new broadcast frequency.

Piccerelli told Fischer to submit a proposal, the decision said, which the union did in May 2017. Piccerelli said management would respond, but by mid-August IBEW had received no response despite Fischer’s many inquiries.

Rhode Island PBS gave raises to six of the seven bargaining employees without consulting with or notifying IBEW, according to the judge’s ruling. The union did not object to these raises, according to a post-hearing brief by IBEW.

In December 2017, the station gave two other employees raises. Goldman ruled that the station must overturn those raises if the union requests.

The judge also ruled that Piccerelli and Richard Dunn, RIPBS’ director of engineering, illegally questioned three employees about their union affiliation and whether they were satisfied with its representation. According to testimony from Piccerelli and Dunn cited in the ruling, four union members said they weren’t being fairly represented by the union and were dissatisfied with their wages and representation.

Based on those conversations, management withdrew recognition of the union, arguing in court that IBEW lacked majority support. But Goldman ruled that the conversations were unlawful because they were “coercive” and said that “interrogating employees about their union sympathies is not an option” for proving lack of union support.

The judge also noted that “complaints about the Union solicited by Piccerelli focused on the lack of wage hikes, the very subject the Union was seeking to bargain” but encountered stonewalling from management.

If Rhode Island PBS doesn’t appeal the ruling, IBEW will continue to seek wage increases, Fischer told Current.

Read the ruling:

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