Digital Displacement: The State Of Our Unions

The buzz word going around television these days is "efficiency." It often crops up next to some form of "create," as in, "creating efficiencies," a spiffed up way of saying, "making money by saving money." Vendors and managers alike drop the word left and right, like in this July letter from ABC to union employees during its negotiations with the National Alliance of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET):

ABC must in these contract negotiations maintain and improve current flexibilities and efficiencies. We must find ways to reduce our costs whenever we can. Our latest annual report shows a decrease of almost $900 million in ABC broadcasting revenues for 2002 from the previous year. These realities must govern these talks.

ABC, which reached a four-year contract agreement with NABET in August, can't be blamed. Ad revenues are down, DTV's a money pit, and war coverage isn't free. There's not a lot left for ABC to do but create efficiencies. Unfortunately for NABET members, as for just about anyone else with a job, efficiencies come with "collateral damage.

Efficiencies traditionally entailed reductions in pay, benefits, safety precautions, training, notebooks, pens, paper clips, light bulbs, toilet paper, oxygen, etc. These kinds of ideas frequently sprang from the mind of a nephew--I mean consultant--to the boss, who would pay the nephew -- I mean consultant -- what it would've cost to continue operations unimpeded.

Digitization has added a whole new dimension to creating efficiencies, certainly in television. Digital and Internet technologies are rapidly morphing the video business into a network of CPUs. One person can shoot and cut their own video on a laptop and send it on a network to an automated control room for incorporation into a broadcast. That's not a happy occurrence for the camera operator, audio tech, video editor, tech director, VTR operator, graphics operator, and anyone else in the chain. For a station, doing the job of five people for the price of one is logical. For those five people, it sucks.

The Real Digital Divide

NABET's contract with ABC includes provisions to prevent digital displacement, but these apply to specific functions, some in specific markets. This struggle for job-function jurisdiction began 10 years ago, according to Jim Joyce, NABET sector vice president.

"We've been operating since 1993 under a computer sideletter, which took away [NABET] exclusive jurisdiction on certain operations...if they were part of a central processing unit. We were able to carve out a significant number of exclusions."

During negotiations for the current contract, Joyce said ABC initially proposed eliminating exclusive jurisdiction, "but they agreed to keep production switching, network and station master control, and technical camera set-up."

ABC also made a commitment to use ENG crews as their "primary newsgathering resource, as opposed to arming production assistants with digital handhelds," he said.

Another clause gives NABET members jurisdiction over any ABC network or O&O hubbing or centralcasting facility within 75 miles of a union shop covered in the contract. What wasn't hammered out was what to do about ParkerVision, the control-room automation system that allows one person to do the jobs of five or six people. After the ABC/NABET contract is ratified (expected by the end of September), separate negotiations will be held between ABC, NABET, and the Directors Guild of America to figure out who gets the driver's seat on a ParkerVision.

These jurisdictional provisions are an important benchmark for the entire union, since about 25 to 30% of its 10,000 members are covered in the ABC contract. (Fluctuation is due to freelancers, who are required to join after 20 days of work in a year, or 30 days over two years.) Included are members of locals in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Whatever NABET achieves with ABC can be held up by other locals in negotiations, but that doesn't guarantee them protections of any kind. Digital displacement remains a chief concern to other members, who talked about the most important issues facing employees:

"I think the pressing issue facing all broadcast workers, not just unionized workers, is automation in production (i.e. ParkerVision) and automation and hubbing of master control operations. In our local alone we have lost approximately 30 members of 120 to automation/hubbing in the last year."ÑEric Seggi, president NABET-CWA Local 28, Erie, PA.

"Here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, we are faced mainly with job security issues. The more the technology goes digital and machine-operated, the more work that our members lose. It is a constant battle."--Richard Bowring, president of NABET Local 411, Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. "The most pressing issue facing the union today is the continuing demand by employers for major givebacks on contract provisions we have long enjoyed. Technological changes including hubbing and automation systems have encouraged employers to bargain aggressively to limit and reduce pay, benefits, and the number of members employed."ÑBill Lambdin, president of NABET-CWA Local 21, Upstate New York.

Indeed, any negotiator worth their salt is going to bargain aggressively, and ABC's teams are not exactly known for naivete. The ABC/NABET negotiations opened toward the end of February with debates about jurisdiction over new technology. Then, 10 days before the contract was scheduled to expire, ABC tossed a proposal on the table that would have vastly undermined the employee pension plan. Ultimately, the union held onto the pension plan, but the parry certainly took the focus off of job jurisdiction.

Another key issue with jurisdiction is who it actually covers. Full-time staff enjoy more protections than freelancers, or "daily hires," in the contract lingo. For example, NABET's 2002 contract with NBC includes this little nugget:

No EJ news field engineer (i.e. member of one- or two-person camera crew) on regular staff as of March 31, 2002 shall be laid off during the term of the 2002-2006 Master Agreement as a direct result of the use of such cameras by non-unit persons in accordance with the terms of this sideletter.

One union member familiar with the ABC/NABET agreement said that the contract is peppered with similar outs, pretty much leaving freelancers swinging in the wind. The primary problem with that is freelancers are making up more and more of the television workforce. Mark Peach, president of Washington, D.C.-based Local 31, and the first "daily hire" to be elected to that post, said that in 1998-99, 65% of all new members were daily hires. In 2001-02, it was 85%. Currently, about 62% of his unit's 1,600 members are considered daily hires.

"It's the nature of the business," Peach said. "It's more advantageous to hire people on an as-needed basis."

It also allows people the type of flexibility you don't get as a full-timer, but there is the trade-off. "There's no job security," he said. "You're hired at 8 and fired at 4."

Job security itself may be an obsolete concept for everyone, as digital technology continues to alter the business and ignite turf wars. The film-centric Screen Actors Guild (SAG) last year clashed with the videotape-centric American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) over which union would cover digitally produced content. Meanwhile, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) was trying to protect camera crew personnel from being bumped out of HD productions.

Animation jobs have been eviscerated by CGI. Just last year, the last of the 2D clean-up crews and animators were shown the door at Disney. Membership in The Animation Guild (AG) (IATSE Local 839), peaked at about 2,800 in the late 1980s. It was down to around 1,500 a year ago, said AG business rep Steve Hulett at the time. Hulett said a lot of the animators had to find new professions. "What did harness makers do when Henry Ford started making Model Ts? It's sad, but it's the story of America," he said.

No, it's the story of technology.

Deborah D. McAdams is a contributing editor. She can be reached at