News & Events

WGBH asking for cuts as contract talks with largest union begin

Cost savings part of broader overhaul sought by broacaster

By Johnny Diaz, Globe Staff

Officials at WGBH said yesterday that they began negotiations with the public broadcaster’s largest union seeking concessions that include cutting the company’s match for employee retirement plans in half, redefining job descriptions, and moving to a performance-based pay raise system.

WGBH has been in talks with the Association of Employees of the Educational Foundation, Local 1300 of the Communications Workers of America, a 300-member union of writers, editors, production workers, and marketing employees, to reach a new three-year agreement on the current contract that ends on Oct. 31.

The changes WGBH is seeking include redefining job descriptions to allow employees to work across media platforms more easily — for instance, editing for radio, TV and the Web. The station also wants the union to agree to the same 4 percent retirement match that employees in the station’s four other unions have, instead of the current 8 percent. Additionally, officials want to base raises on an employee’s performance instead of automatic yearly raises.

Station officials say the moves are aimed at reducing costs and operating more efficiently in an environment where multimedia is becoming more prevalent in day-to-day operations.

“The way the media is changing around us, people are able to do production in a kind of new way that is in some ways, streamlined or simpler,’’ said Jeanne Hopkins, vice president of communication and government relations at WGBH. “Given the way we are set up, we can’t work in those same ways.’’

Local 1300 president Jordan Weinstein declined to comment. The other main in-house union, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians Local 18, accepted the 4 percent retirement match last year.

WGBH, a nonprofit that depends on donations and sponsorships, produces one-third of the programming for the Public Broadcasting Service, including marquee shows such as “Frontline’’ and “Nova.’’ Hopkins said she doesn’t expect the proposed changes to affect programming, except to make it “more efficient and more competitive.’’

Last year, the station, which has 850 employees, bought classical station WCRB-FM 99.5 or $14 million and re invented WGBH-FM 89.7 to a full-time news-talk format. WGBH’s fund-raising campaign to pay for its acquisition of the 24-hour classical station continues.

WGBH’s proposed changes reflect ever-increasing pressure on on public broadcasters as sponsorships, donations, and endowments have declined in the down economy. Last year, for example, WGBH cut about two dozen jobs, and implemented wage freezes and unpaid furloughs to reduce costs. Its endowment has fallen from $50 million last year to $28 million. WGBH had 170,000 members this year, on par with last year’s membership.

Donna Halper, a radio consultant and media professor at Lesley University, said that in a tough economy, media outlets will have their employees take on more expanded roles to save money and improve workplace efficiencies. “In today’s media landscape in both radio and television, everyone is expected to multitask,’’ said Halper.

Helen Kennedy, an Oregon-based fund-raising consultant whose firm’s partners have worked with WGBH, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and other public TV and radio stations around the country, agrees. She said WGBH’s proposed changes, including the decreased company match, don’t “sound out of line with the rest of the nonprofit sector.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at