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Off the Air: The News Behind the News

A change of ownership kicks off a storm of controversy at Channel 40.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

When news broke earlier this year that WGGB, the ABC television affiliate based in Springfield, was being sold, employees say the reaction around the station was generally positive.

WGGB had been owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, a Maryland-based corporation with more than 50 TV stations in 35 markets. While officials from the labor union that represents 68 employees at WGGB say they had a good relationship with the local station management, the parent corporation's politically conservative bent and focus on the bottom line (which included the shuttering of news and weather departments in other markets) sometimes led to frayed nerves at the station. Employees say they were particularly happy to see that the new owner was local: John Gormally, publisher of BusinessWest, a regional business journal.

The honeymoon was short-lived. Within a few weeks of officially taking ownership of the station on Nov. 1, Gormally laid off a number of employees (the union says 10; Gormally told the Springfield Republican it was only six) and demoted several others. Of the affected employees, several were very active in the union, according to the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians Local 19. Although the union had a contract with Sinclair that extended to next fall, Gormally is not bound to honor that contract under the particular structure of the sale.

While Local 19 has begun negotiations with Gormally for a new contract, until and unless one is reached, most employees at the station have virtually no job security or protections. Complicating matters are internal struggles among station employees over the role of the union, driven at least in part, it appears, by personality clashes.

 

To the outside observer, the conflict at WGGB carries the extra intrigue of local celebrity. The union stewards include on-air reporters Jim Cline and Jim Polito and weather forecaster Dan Brown, and Local 19's president is popular weatherman Tom Bevacqua.

Bevacqua was WGGB's chief meteorologist for years before leaving in 2006. While he now teaches and occasionally works as a substitute weatherman for rival station CBS Channel 3-Springfield, Bevacqua remains head of the union, a position he's held for more than a decade. In a recent interview, Bevacqua exuded the same cheerfulness he does on air. When he heard Gormally was buying the station, he says, he sent him an email congratulating him and wishing him well.

Local 19's relationship with management under Sinclair, Bevacqua said, was positive. "We've always been willing and able to work it out with management and employees," he said, and he had expected the same under the new owner. "I always think it's going to be a positive relationship because I'm a pretty positive person."

That optimism was quickly tested by the layoffs and demotions. Gormally did not respond to our interview requests. But according to sources at the station, the new owner has said he had to cut personnel costs to satisfy lenders who helped finance the $21. 2 million purchase. "He has a budget. He has to answer to his mortgagers, or whatever they're called," Bevacqua said. "I think he did what he thought was the right thing."

Still, the fact that so many of the affected employees were active in the union—the union's vice president, a long-time photographer, was among those laid off, and Cline and Brown were both demoted—has raised eyebrows. "I find it hard to believe that [Gormally] did not know that certain individuals who were either demoted or in fact were fired were members of the union," Bevacqua said. "But, hey, as I said, I'm a fairly positive person, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt."

That benefit of the doubt, however, did not preclude the union filing several charges relating to the layoffs and demotions with the National Labor Relations Board.

While Gormally is not responding to reporters' calls, he did respond to an email sent to supporters of the pro-labor activist group Western Mass. Jobs with Justice last month. Jon Weissman, WMJWJ's chair, had copied Gormally in on the message, which bore the subject line "Union-busting at Channel 40?" In it, Weissman urged supporters to write protest letters to Gormally.

In reply to Weissman, Gormally wrote on the day after Thanksgiving: "Not union busting. Raised the minimum wage by $2 an hour, added extra holidays and vacation time for workers (while I am working today, the ABC40 staff has the day off, paid of course). Everything comes with time. Hope you understand."

"I will try to understand," Weissman replied, "but an employer with a union would set wages, holidays, and vacations through collective bargaining. Then, as a workers' rights advocate, I could use the settled contract as the measure of fairness (fairness to the employer, too)."

Gormally and the union have begun negotiating a new contract. At a meeting two weeks ago, the union put forth two proposals, said Bill Murray, a representative of NABET International. One of those included an interim contract that would last nine months, because, according to Murray, Gormally has said that he needs time to learn more about the broadcasting industry before settling on a long-term deal.

Bevacqua described the meeting as "fairly positive." The two sides are scheduled to meet again, possibly at the end of this week.

"We just want to protect our people," Bevacqua said. "By absolutely no means are we a union that's making outrageous demands. We're looking for Mr. Gormally to simply recognize and utilize the contract that was made with Sinclair until its expiration date, and then hopefully negotiate a new contract."

Meanwhile a second drama is playing out at WGGB, one that does not appear directly linked to the union's conflict with Gormally, but rather involves internal conflicts among station staff.

According to union representatives and station employees, a petition has been circulating around WGGB seeking to decertify the union. The petition drive apparently began last summer and was revived more recently, concurrently with the ownership change.

Sources identify Dave Madsen, WGGB's veteran news anchor, as a force behind the anti-union drive. But Madsen objected to the assertion, made by some union officials and reported in a recent Springfield Republican article, that he had initiated the petition drive. "I never initiated it," Madsen said in a voicemail to the Advocate.

Madsen declined to be interviewed. In an email he wrote: "I'm not going to get into a public finger pointing match with any union member or officer who is speaking with you. I just don't believe what really is an internal matter needs to be played out in the local press.

"Our owner is in negotiations with Local 19 and that's the only place any of these issues should be discussed," Madsen added.

Bevacqua said he's surprised that any employee would want to get rid of the union, given the recent firings and demotions. And, he added, Madsen—whom Bevacqua maintains has been involved in the petition effort—has an existing contract. "It's interesting he's trying to decertify the union when he's going to be protected anyway," Bevacqua said.

Murray said he's not worried about the risk of decertification; according to him, a majority of NABET members recently signed cards reaffirming their support of the union. Still, the effort, coming at a time of general insecurity, does nothing to help morale in the workplace, and seems to be worsening already tense relationships. It also makes Madsen appear, perhaps unfairly, to be carrying water for the new management.

"We were thrilled when Sinclair left and we were getting a local owner," Murray said last week. Ironically, he notes, the union was able to reach a workable agreement with Sinclair, a company that is not exactly beloved within the labor movement.

"We would like as good a deal as we got from [that] terrible company from Mr. Gormally," he said. "We want to build a good relationship, turn it around and get it successful for everyone."

Troubled as the early days of that relationship have been, Bevacqua says he's optimistic. "I have every reason to believe in the long run things will work out OK," he said.

mturner@valleyadvocate.com

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