SINCE 1968, radio listeners in Portland looking to hear something different could tune into KBOO.
The community radio station, named for a strain of marijuana called "Berkeley Boo," offers an eclectic mix of experimental music and confrontational left-leaning political talk where listeners can learn about labor struggles, alternative economic systems, and whether or not there will be chemtrails today.
But a management push to shore up the station's finances—and impose some discipline on a station known for flouting it—has employees and supporters on edge.
Worried about some of the far-reaching changes, staffers last week answered by agreeing to form a union. Eight of nine non-management workers voted on May 30 to organize under the auspices of the Communications Workers of America, Local 7901, says Madelyn Elder, the union's president.
The vote is the latest development in a scuffle between station management and labor that began brewing last summer. That was about when KBOO's board hired a new station manager, Lynn Fitch, who has a 30-year background in nonprofit management. Fitch says KBOO has been losing money and members for years, a situation she wants to reverse.
KBOO hadn't filed its 2012 taxes yet, but its tax form for 2011 shows it running $105,000 in the red, slightly better from the previous year's deficit of $132,000.
"Members are going to be very concerned about what's going on, and they are going to let that concern be heard," Eugene Bradley, who served on KBOO's board between 1998 and 2006, says of the changes at the station.
Earlier this year, the board hired Paychex, a human resources firm, to evaluate its management and personnel policies. The company's recommendations paved the way for further changes that rankled staff and some station supporters. And at one point, the station most known in Portland for supporting workers' rights even found itself doing business with a union-busting law firm.
The revamp was meant to bring the station in line with policies seen at other businesses and nonprofits, and included some basic standards—like prohibiting drug use. The reforms also centralized Fitch's control over operations, a departure from the collective process previously used to govern KBOO.
"Without change, we become stagnant; we die," says Fitch.
But members, the people who give money to the station and vote for its board of directors, are clearly worried the opposite is true. They've started an informal group called "Keep KBOO KBOO."
Jamie Partridge—a volunteer programmer at KBOO, labor activist, and retired letter carrier—says the corporate-tinged changes might alienate the station's core audience. He also worries KBOO will drift away from its charter mission of providing a forum for "unpopular, controversial, or neglected perspectives."
"KBOO appeals to the 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."
With the board's backing, and keeping with the recommendations from Paychex, Fitch cut down on leave time, including a reduction in maternity leave; did away with sabbaticals; and reduced sick time. She also made it easier to fire or lay off employees, which had been difficult with the station's grievance process. She even floated the idea of laying off the entire staff and letting them reapply for their old jobs.
In March, Fitch says, the staff sent a letter expressing outrage they weren't included in the changes. Staff also began taking formal steps to unionize, including filing papers with the National Labor Relations Board.
Fitch says that after receiving notice that the station's staff was taking steps to unionize, she consulted KBOO's legal counsel, Sussman Shank LLP. Attorneys at the firm, according to Fitch, said management would be better served by Bullard Law, a labor-relations firm with 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."
Bullard's hiring sparked a backlash from members. A special meeting, which attracted 200 people, was held May 4 to address the dust-up. Afterward, Fitch said she would voluntarily recognize the union. KBOO also stopped paying Bullard on retainer.
"Some people found it hard to believe that KBOO needed a law firm that represented employers because KBOO has stood for workers' rights," says Fitch, who grew up in a Teamster household.
After the meeting, Elder says she sent a letter to Fitch seeking management's acknowledgment that employees wanted to organize and that bargaining would commence. But, Fitch found some parts of the letter "overreaching" and decided to allow, instead, a formal election.
"KBOO is a progressive organization," says Elder, who is optimistic about bargaining. "You'd think they'd want to treat their staff in a fair and meaningful way."