When most people hear the term “labor dispute” they normally picture a large corporation with several layers of disconnected managers and unfeeling personnel policies. While there are many – too many – cases of this sort, even small, seemingly labor-friendly nonprofit organizations can become embroiled in employment rights disputes.
Nonprofit Radio Station Tries to Streamline Personnel Policies
As the Portland Tribune reports, this is the case with KBOO, a Portland radio station that combines eclectic music styles (including jazz, bluegrass, and African music) with alternative news and spoken-word programs. The radio station is owned by 45-year old nonprofit, the KBOO Foundation, whose governance structure in the past was largely diffuse and allowed for participation by the staff and its large volunteer base. A personnel committee comprised of board members, staff members, and volunteers was in charge of hiring and firing; dealing with staff grievances, or attempting to fire even a volunteer, was often subject to a long and cumbersome procedure.
However, in the past few months, the Foundation Board deactivated the personnel committee, got rid of the complicated grievance procedure, and invested the KBOO Station Manager, Lynn Fitch, with sole hiring and firing authority. Fitch thereafter, with the consent of the Board, implemented several management policies that she argues are necessary in order to bring the Foundation in line with other nonprofits and to allow her the flexibility to give some employees pay raises. Despite her arguments that these policies are necessary, given the stations’ tight finances, the changes have caused a fair amount of dissension among the radio station’s staff and volunteer base, many of whom were informed that they might be let go and forced to reapply for their old jobs.
Changed Personnel Policies and Anti-Union Actions
First, Fitch changed the paid staff to ‘at-will’ employees, meaning that the radio station would no longer need to provide just cause for firing them. In addition, she cut many important employee benefits: employees are now allowed only 40 hours of paid sick leave per year (they used to have 80); staff members are allowed to accumulate only 20 hours of unused sick pay (they used to be allowed 480 hours’ worth of unused sick pay); paid pregnancy leaves have been cut down from six weeks to three weeks; and staff sabbaticals and step raises have been eliminated.
Finally, and of most concern, is Fitch’s opposition to unionizing efforts among staff members at the radio station. In response to concerns about the new personnel policies, eight of KBOO’s ten paid employees requested affiliation with the Communications Workers of America Local 7901. They will vote in a secret ballot at the end of May to decide whether to designate the union as their collective bargaining agent. While Fitch says, as is legally required of her, that “KBOO fully supports the staffs’ legal rights to unionize or not,” she has moved to contest the creation of a ten-employee bargaining unit (comprised of all the paid staff except Fitch) by claiming that three of those employees are managers, and therefore unfit to be unionized.
The irony that this labor and anti-union dispute is happening at KBOO – a community station that has aired a longstanding public affairs radio show hosted by labor activists – is lost on no one. As Madelyn Elder, the current president of the Communications Workers of America Local 7901 and a former KBOO volunteer herself, notes, corporations are no longer the only groups attacking unions and collective bargaining agreements. Anti-labor action can come from even the unlikeliest of corners.
If you or someone you know is worried that changing personnel policies at your workplace could be affecting your employment rights, please contact one of our attorneys to help you understand your options.