WTAE, on-air staff tussle over contract

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Those who deliver the news are raising their voices. WTAE-TV's on-air staff has launched a social media campaign to protest what it says is unfair treatment by management.

"Hearst has recently signed contracts with AFTRA containing similar basic standards in six other cities, so we feel that Pittsburgh deserves the same standards. It's basic fairness," said John Hilsman, Pittsburgh executive director for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Scheduling is at the heart of the protest as 23 unionized anchors and reporters -- including those involved in sports and weather -- claim WTAE parent company Hearst Corp. is stalling negotiation talks. The next meeting is Tuesday.

"We all recognize that news is 24/7," Mr. Hilsman said. "But typically, you build into agreements like these provisions that take away the sting of disrupting people's lives."

Other employees at the station, such as camera operators, are represented by different unions.

Locally, AFTRA also represents on-air television talent at WPXI and KDKA. WTAE was part of a union until 12 years ago, when a close vote by its staff created a nonunion shop.

In June 2010, however, WTAE employees voted -- again, by a reportedly narrow margin -- to rejoin. Since then, more than a dozen collective bargaining sessions have yielded little progress to reach a contract.

Through Twitter, Facebook and printed materials, WTAE's on-air staff maintains it is being denied severance benefits for workers fired without cause, a minimum salary scale, overtime pay after eight hours in a work day, retirement benefits on the same terms as other employees at the station, and consideration for unscheduled call-outs, split shifts and work on the sixth consecutive day and thereafter.

The last term appears to be cited most often in workers' complaints.

"In recent times, management played games with the scheduling," said Bill Hillgrove, who is not a full-time Hearst employee but, in addition to being the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers, provides WTAE with insider reports. A longtime sports figure at WTAE, he has become one of the major faces of this movement.

The campaign's printed materials also include the names and photos of some of WTAE's best-known talent, including news anchors Wendy Bell, Kelly Frey and Mike Clark.

An online petition is available at http://ow.ly/86R53.

Michael Hayes, president and general manager of WTAE, said he could not comment other than to say, "We are negotiating in good faith and look forward to continuing those negotiations. We continue to value our employees and look to working toward the future."

The workers' complaints note that Hearst TV has settled contracts in at least six cities: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Boston, New Orleans and Omaha, Neb. What sets Pittsburgh apart might be the fact that it rejoined the union and is not negotiating the extension of an existing contract.

"I believe they want us to start all over again. They say, 'You can't catch up with the other stations,' " said Mr. Hillgrove, who began there in 1967.

"The general attitude is one of trying to stiff-arm the union, hoping it will go away," Mr. Hilsman said. "We have continued to meet and try to struggle through this stuff, but without any substantive movement on big issues."


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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