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KBOO radio dials up labor fight blues

Staff tries to join union after station policy shakeup


KBOO, the Portland community radio station that has long championed worker rights and other progressive causes, is embroiled in a labor dispute of its own.

Staff members are trying to unionize after KBOO Station Manager Lynn Fitch reduced employee benefits and shifted paid staff to “at will” status, which means they can be fired without cause.  

Fitch’s moves to assert more managerial authority are a departure for the 45-year-old nonprofit, which has long practiced a participatory style of governance that grants staff, board members and volunteers significant roles.

The station’s paid staff will vote via secret ballot May 30 on whether to designate the Communications Workers of America Local 7901 as their collective bargaining agent. 

“As a dedicated worker for many years, it deeply saddens me that KBOO management has changed the terms of staff employment from ‘for just cause’ to ‘at will,’ cut our benefits and then has chosen to fight our efforts to unionize,” says Kathleen Stephenson, the morning news and public affairs director, who has worked at the station more than 20 years.

KBOO, broadcasting at 90.7 FM, offers an eclectic mix of music, news and public affairs, including blues, bluegrass, folk, jazz and African music, and spoken-word shows offering alternative perspectives not found elsewhere on Portland’s radio dial.

Fitch says the KBOO Foundation Board of Directors re-evaluated its role and station personnel procedures after winning a $25,000 grant to hire outside consultants.

KBOO often has relied on a personnel committee of board, staff and volunteers to conduct hiring searches and weigh grievances. Efforts to fire staff — even on-air and other volunteers — often are cumbersome and controversial.

As occurs at other alternative community radio stations, longtime program hosts and other volunteers often have a sense of ownership of the station, and for good reason. The station is owned by the KBOO Foundation, which is controlled by the station’s 5,000 donors. However, Fitch complains that only about 300 to 400 people vote in foundation board elections, and those presumably include many of the station’s 500 volunteers.

In the past few months, the board granted Fitch sole authority to hire and fire staff, and the personnel committee was deactivated, says board member Michael Papadopoulos. A staff grievance procedure, which Fitch says was “very lengthy and somewhat convoluted,” was eliminated. 

Fitch also cut employees’ paid sick pay from 80 hours a year to 40 hours. Staff had been allowed to accumulate as much as 480 hours’ unused sick pay, and she cut that to 20 hours. She also cut paid pregnancy leaves from six weeks to three weeks, and eliminated staff sabbaticals and step raises.

“The way they’re treating their workers is a reflection of where they’re heading,” says Madelyn Elder, president of Communications Workers of America Local 7901. “That doesn’t seem very community-like.”

Fitch says the benefits cuts were necessary because of the station’s crimped finances, and to bring them in line with other nonprofits. She also wants the flexibility to grant some employees pay raises, and end the policy of paying everyone the same amount.

KBOO will remain a “pretty wonderful place to work,” Fitch says, noting the station pays full health care premiums and allows a new mom to bring her baby to work every day.

But Fitch’s changes have provoked a sharp division within the staff, who say they were told they might all be laid off and then forced to reapply for their jobs.

Ironically, a station that has long aired a public affairs program hosted by labor activists, and promoted human rights of all kinds, is now officially opposing the union drive, or at least Fitch is.

She contested the union’s bid to create a bargaining unit of 10 employees — all the paid staff except herself— arguing that three of those employees are managers.

Eight of the 10 employees signed union-authorization cards requesting affiliation with the Communications Workers of America Local 7901. A planned National Labor Relations Board hearing to resolve the size of the bargaining unit was scheduled for April 30, but was canceled the day before when both sides agreed to move the finance director — who didn’t support the union anyway — out of the bargaining unit.

“KBOO fully supports the staffs’ legal rights to unionize or not,” Fitch insists. 

However, that’s merely what the law requires. Fitch makes no secret that she opposes the union drive.

“The KBOO Foundation believes, however, that at this time and under the circumstances, that we don’t believe it’s in the best interests of the station and the staff to involve third-party representation,” Fitch says.

It’s unclear if that position is shared by the board.

Board Chairman S.W. “Conch” Conser declined to comment, saying he can’t speak for the organization.

Papadopoulos says the board has no formal position on the union drive, and he doesn’t oppose it.

Elder— a former volunteer with the KBOO radio show — says the station is behaving in many ways like a typical corporation that opposes union drives.

“Unions are attacked all over the place and not just by corporations any more,” Elder says. Her local also recently organized bargaining units at Portland nonprofits Free Geek and the Fund for the Public Interest, a call center that raises money for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group.

If KBOO workers vote to join the union and win a collective bargaining agreement, they might secure the right to a grievance process and seniority-based considerations in future layoffs, Elder says. However, KBOO would still have the freedom to make layoffs if it so chooses, she says, even if the workers fend off the “at-will” hiring and firing policy.

“There’s power in numbers,” she says. “At the least, they’d face it together.”

Fitch, who was promoted recently from development director to “station navigator,” says KBOO’s social justice-oriented philosophy and programming will not change as a result of the union drive. However, she says, conditions are tense among the staff.

“It makes for a very hostile work environment — not hostility from me — but uncomfortable,” Fitch says. “Yet, would I have have done anything differently? No.”

Editor’s note: Reporter Steve Law worked as KBOO volunteer coordinator from 1980-82, and served on its board from 1987-94.