Staffers at WAMU approve joining SAG-AFTRA union

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WAMU building

Sasha Fernandez/Current

WAMU's building in Washington, D.C.

A group of employees at WAMU in Washington, D.C., will begin negotiating a contract with licensee American University after voting unanimously to form a union.

All 65 valid mail-in-ballots supported joining the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union, according to a Thursday press release. Two votes were invalid because they lacked signatures, according to WAMU reporter Ally Schweitzer, a member of the organizing committee.

The 84-employee bargaining unit includes reporters, editors, producers, hosts, audio engineers and other content creators who work in the newsroom, produce shows and podcasts, or produce content for DCist, the news website owned by WAMU. American University is challenging 13 positions in the unit, including grant-funded positions, out-of-state employees paid by a third party, staffers who sometimes take on supervisory roles, and employees “the university believes do not create content for WAMU,” Schweitzer said in an email to Current.

“WAMU’s content creators, as a collective bargaining unit represented by SAG-AFTRA, look forward to advancing our shared beliefs in transparency, accountability, fairness, and most importantly, the truth,” said WAMU Morning Edition host Esther Ciammachilli in the release.

“The university respects the choice of its content staff at WAMU to have union representation,” Beth Muha, assistant VP of human resources at American University, said in a memo to staff. Muha said that negotiating a new contract “can be a lengthy process, so we should not expect to have an agreement in place until sometime in 2022.”

“We look forward to beginning the collective bargaining process and we will engage in a constructive dialogue with the union regarding issues related to the terms and conditions of employment,” an AU spokesperson said in a statement. “The university has enjoyed a positive working relationship with other unions that represent university employees and is committed to maintaining a constructive relationship with SAG-AFTRA.”

In an Oct. 1 petition to management, employees noted issues at the station including “deeply ingrained internal racism,” high turnover among women of color and disparities in compensation.

“We know that as a union, with a seat at the table with management, we can work to ensure that all employees — especially those who have historically endured systemic oppression — feel empowered, valued and safe where they work,” the petition said.

“This vote provides a necessary pathway for us to work with management to create an environment that embraces WAMU’s deep desire to serve the public while protecting the people who produce the news every day,” said 1A host Jenn White in the release. “We’re excited to work with WAMU and American University to shape this future.”

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