WFAE becomes the first public radio station in the Carolinas to unionize
Charlotte-based WFAE is now officially the first public radio station in the Carolinas to form a union. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists will represent Content staff at the NPR member outlet.
The development, which was first announced via Twitter on Thursday and confirmed by SAG-AFTRA in a Friday press release, comes two weeks after staff at the Charlotte-based outlet announced their intention to unionize.
South and North Carolina have the lowest and second lowest union member rates in the country at 1.7% and 2.6% respectively, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national average for union members sits at 10.3%.
“This ensures us a seat at the table and a shot at fair wages and working conditions as WFAE grows,” said David Boraks, a WFAE reporter whose stories are often published on wunc.org and a member of the new union. “It's a great day for the content staff at WFAE and for the station, and we hope that together, we can work to make Charlotte's NPR source even stronger.”
Other staffers shared their reactions to the news on Twitter.
“I’ve been at WFAE for 8 years to the day. So proud of the work we do and that this day has finally come!” wrote WFAE reporter Sarah Delia.
Management voluntarily recognizes union
The journalists formalized the union through a process called a “card check” in which a neutral third party verifies that a majority of the group has signed union authorization cards indicating those individuals’ intent to form a union.
“Based on those results, WFAE management agreed to voluntarily recognize the union,” SAG-AFTRA wrote in the press release. According to SAG-AFTRA, more than 70% of WFAE’s content creators signed union cards.
In an email to staff, WFAE CEO Joe O’Connor wrote that after the card check, “WFAE will begin negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with SAG-AFTRA that reflects our shared values and shared vision on behalf of the community we are licensed to serve.”
Now that a union has been certified, WFAE’s management must negotiate with the staff group through their union representatives. O’Connor did not provide a further comment when contacted by WUNC.
Card check isn’t the most common process for union recognition in the U.S., says David Zonderman, a professor of history at NC State specializing in American labor history. Instead, he says the process usually goes to a National Labor Relations Board supervised election which “can often be quite intense, quite bitter.”
“And in North Carolina, it's probably doubly unusual, because North Carolina is a state known for being a state difficult to organize in. And we have a number of laws that make it hard for unions to organize,” said Zonderman. “So for an employer in North Carolina to go to card check and just say, ‘I’m going to recognize union based on cards and not require an election,’ is very unusual.”
SAG-AFTRA’s National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland called the union a “historic win for organized labor,” in the Friday press release. He said it shows it’s “possible to successfully organize in so-called ‘right-to-work’ states. I applaud WFAE management for voluntarily recognizing the will of its content creators to form a union.”
Local newsrooms, including Charlotte Observer, join unionization wave
Over the past few years, a slew of local newsrooms across the country, including public media outlets, joined labor organizing efforts. Public radio stations WHYY in Philadelphia, WNYC in New York City and WBUR in Boston formed unions. In 2021, NPR — which is a union outlet — signed a new collective bargaining agreement. These stations, and possibly soon WFAE, are members of SAG-AFTRA.
Just this week, journalists with WFAE’s neighbor, The Charlotte Observer, reached a tentative agreement on their newly-formed union’s first collectively bargained contract. The contract still needs to be ratified by the full news guild, says Paige Masten, an opinion writer for the Charlotte Observer and a member of the bargaining committee.
If secured, Masten says the new three-year contract would increase the salary floor at the Observer from $45,000 to $50,000. The contract would also “guaranteed raises in the second and third years of the contract, layoff protections and just-cause protections,” said Masten.
Pay inequity and a desire for a stronger role in shaping the future of organizations are commonly cited reasons for union pushes among local newsrooms. And these efforts come as the national climate towards unions is shifting.
A recent Gallup poll released in August shows that overall, Americans’ approval of labor unions is at the highest point since 1965.
In May, the Center for Local Media based at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media issued an analysis of union organizing in local U.S. newsrooms and found that since 2017, “90% of unions organized by workers in local newsrooms have gained representation.” Overall, the researchers found that more than 9,500 workers in 224 media organizations in the United States formed 162 new unions between 2017 and 2022.
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