The staff at KBOO, Portland's left-leaning community radio station, has voted overwhelmingly to unionize in response to scuffles with management.
Earlier today, eight of the station's nine paid employees voted to unionize under the auspices of the Communications Workers of America, Local 7901, said Madelyn Elder, the union's president. One ballot was not filled out, said Elder.
Conflicts between management and labor at the station began brewing last summer, when KBOO's board began seeking changes to how it operated. Many of the controversial changes were being implemented by Lynn Fitch, who previously served as KBOO's development director, and was hired as the station's “navigator” (or station manager) by the board in July 2012.
Fitch wasn't available for comment, but in an interview titled “Lynn Fitch: Raw, Naked, and Exposed,” broadcast last week on KBOO, she said she was hired by the station's board to bring more leadership and structure to the organization, which has long had a collective decision-making process that relies heavily on input from staff and volunteers.
“My feeling about it was, the board was really looking for leadership - that they had really had frustration with the staff collective,” Fitch told interviewer Don Merrill.
Shortly after she was hired, KBOO used money from a grant from the Myer Memorial Trust to hire PayChex, a human resources firm, to evaluate the roles of the station's board and management and overhaul its personnel policy. The evaluation from PayChex paved the way for drastic changes to KBOO's employment and management policies that have rankled staff and the station's supporters.
The policies revamped KBOO's organization to a more top-down leadership structure with Fitch holding more authority. The new policies also reduced employee leave time and allowed management to terminate staff at will, a departure from requirements that they be given “just cause” for being let go. Fitch also proposed laying off the entire staff and allowing them to reapply for their old positions.
In April, KBOO employees began taking formal steps to unionize, including filing papers with the National Labor Relations Board and setting May 30 as the date for when staff would vote on forming a union.
Fitch said that after receiving notice that the station's staff was seeking to unionize, she consulted KBOO's legal counsel, Sussman Shank LLP. Attorneys at the firm, according to Fitch, told her that the station's management would be better served by Bullard Law, a firm that has more experience in labor relations and a reputation for busting unions.
“Think about the target audience here for KBOO,” says Elder. “They are a little bit left of center, so they are wondering why they are spending membership dues on a union-busting law firm."
In response, a petition went up on change.org calling Bullard Law “antithetical to the values of KBOO” and asking the station's board to dump the firm.
Hoping to address the dust-up, KBOO held a special meeting on May 4 for its members at Tabor Space, which Elder said attracted 200 people. After hearing concern from members, Fitch said she wold voluntarily recognize the union, eliminating the need for the staff to vote on unionization.
Elder said she sent a letter to Fitch seeking management's acknowledgment that KBOO employees had formed a union and that bargaining would commence in 60 days. However, Elder said that Fitch unexpectedly rejected the letter outright, causing the union to proceed with the election.
Fitch, in the interview on KBOO, defended her decision to hire Bullard Law, saying that after receiving notice that the staff intended to unionize she needed to respond quickly and was acting on advice from the station's long-time legal counsel.
Some KBOO members worry about the course the station is on and have formed an informal group called “Keep KBOO KBOO.”
Jamie Partridge—a volunteer programmer at KBOO, labor activist, retired letter carrier and member of Keep KBOO KBOO—said that he and others are worried that Fitch is seeking to move KBOO's funding stream toward big donors and away from membership contributions, weakening the connection between the station and its core audience.
He also worries that as the station seeks out new listeners, KBOO will drift away from its programming charter that calls on it to provide a forum for “unpopular, controversial, or neglected perspectives,” while also giving a voice to “unserved and underserved” groups.
“What we're suggesting is that KBOO appeals to 15 percent of Portlanders who are radicals and progressives and trying to change the world from the left coast,” he says. “To go through these changes will lose that base. We have a particular niche and there's no sense in changing that.”
Fitch, in her interview on KBOO, defended her desire to diversify funding sources, saying that all the foundation grants she has been seeking are based locally, as are the businesses she has solicited for donations. All the changes she has sought, she said, will advance KBOO's strategic plans. Fitch also said that she has had positive feedback from listeners and volunteers.
“They are upset, I think, because of change,” she said of her detractors, in the interview. “Change is scary; I'm not saying it's not. Change is necessary. Change is the only constant that's there. Maybe I have not been as diligent as I could have been to help people not be a fearful about that, and I'm sorry.”
In the meantime, Elder says she will be seeking to negotiate with KBOO management. The first issue that will come up, she said, will be challenging the “at-will” employment status of staff. She didn't comment on other issues that the union will bargain on and said she is optimistic about negotiations.
“KBOO is a progressive organization, and as a progressive organization you'd think they'd want to treat their staff is a fair and meaningful way,” she says.