- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The “emotional roller-coaster” of negotiations between the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications Workers of America Local 31 and WJLA-TV (Channel 7) appears ready to run off the tracks after the union members last week rejected the company’s “best and final” offer.

About 70 members of the union have been working without a contract at Allbritton Communications Co.-owned WJLA and its cable sister, NewsChannel 8, since January 2005, but some progress made earlier this year has come to a halt after the “no” vote garnered 96 percent support.

Local 31 President Mark Peach, who previously described the 18 months of negotiations as an “emotional roller-coaster,” expected the rejection because the union had been clear that only a full arbitration process by a neutral third party could be recommended for approval.

The company wanted to control that process and, if it deemed arbitration unnecessary, would offer eight months severance for employees with 10 years or more of service and four months for those with less than 10 years.

Previous issues involving wage parity and maintenance of seniority lists have been resolved, but arbitration is a deal-breaker for union members and has led them to question the stations’ motivation for eliminating the process.

“There’s a growing distrust by the employees of management,” said a photographer and union member who works at the stations and requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

When the contract first expired, many workers were “a little uneasy.” But as the negotiations dragged on, it became the “status quo,” the photographer said. But when the company moved to eliminate arbitration, “it made people very uncomfortable.”

“There’s a feeling that something is not right,” the photographer said. “There’s a perception amongst the employees that the company does not want older employees, and without arbitration, could get rid of some of the older workers.”

“We regret the union’s decision to reject the station’s final offer, which included very fair wage increases and ratification bonuses that the union had agreed to and that will now not go into effect,” according to a WJLA statement. “By rejecting the station’s final offer, the union ultimately voted not to have any arbitrations at all. No further bargaining sessions are planned.”

Bill Lord, vice president of news at WJLA and NewsChannel 8, declined to comment beyond the station’s statement.

After the vote, Local 31 members “mobilized” on Saturday and distributed fliers to consumers urging them not to patronize WJLA advertiser Pohanka Acura of Chantilly. Police were called to the scene but allowed the union members to remain.

Lenny Gonzales, general manager of Pohanka Acura, said the firm would continue to advertise on WJLA.

Even before the vote became official, Mr. Peach said the mobilizations would continue but that a strike authorization similar to the national one recently approved against NBC Universal was not immediately in the cards.

“Not at this time because of the success of the mobilizations, which will be more frequent” and increase in number, Mr. Peach said yesterday. “The S-word has not come into play yet.”

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