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WTTW technicians on strike against Chicago public TV station vow ‘to be out here as long as it takes’

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/22/2022 Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune
Signs on a vehicle during a strike event outside the WTTW studios in Chicago on March 21, 2022. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS Signs on a vehicle during a strike event outside the WTTW studios in Chicago on March 21, 2022.

Two dozen striking WTTW technicians came out from behind the cameras and held a union rally in front of the station’s North Side studios Monday seeking support in their quest for job guarantees and a new labor contract.

The employees, all members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1220, went on strike Wednesday after being unable to reach an agreement with WTTW-Ch. 11 following nearly a year of negotiations. It is the first such strike in the 67-year-history of the Chicago public TV station.

“We’ve had a contract with WTTW since 1955 and we’ve never had a problem of this magnitude with the company,” said John Rizzo, business manager for Downers Grove-based IBEW Local 1220, which represents radio and television broadcast engineers at a number of stations in Chicago.

The striking IBEW workers include camera operators, graphic artists and floor crew responsible for various productions at WTTW, including the station’s signature nightly news program, “Chicago Tonight.” The IBEW technicians have been behind the scenes at WTTW since its inception as one of the first public TV stations in the U.S., bringing to life seminal local programming such as “Soundstage” and “Check, Please!” over the years.

John Rizzo, business manager with IBEW Local 1220, joins other members as he speaks at a strike event outside the WTTW studio on March 21, 2022. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS John Rizzo, business manager with IBEW Local 1220, joins other members as he speaks at a strike event outside the WTTW studio on March 21, 2022.

The technicians had been working without a labor contract since July, when a one-year extension of the previous four-year agreement expired. The issues are job protection and work jurisdiction, according to the union, which alleges WTTW is trying to farm out their long-standing technical duties to news producers and nonunion personnel.

“They want to replace us with nonunion workers,” Rizzo said. “They’re trying to kill us on attrition.”

WTTW said it offered the union a no-layoff guarantee and a bargaining unit minimum of 25 full-time employees for the term of the new contract, but the IBEW rejected it. The station also defended the proposed changes in job responsibilities for IBEW members as bringing the contract up to date with other Chicago TV stations in a “rapidly changing” industry.

The station said the proposed changes in the labor agreement would allow for “full utilization of current and future technology and pave the way for new skills and opportunities” for IBEW union members,” but the union “wants status quo.” The station also wants to be able to use news conference feeds posted by public officials and businesses, as well as local media pool feeds, which it said IBEW has rejected.

More than 60 union members and supporters gathered outside the WTTW studios on a sunny spring morning Monday, along with two 15-foot protest rat balloons. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was among the speakers calling on station management to resolve the labor disagreement and get the technicians back to work.

Members of IBEW Local 1220 hold a strike event outside the WTTW studios in Chicago on March 21, 2022. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS Members of IBEW Local 1220 hold a strike event outside the WTTW studios in Chicago on March 21, 2022.

“All the cameramen, all the technical folks who put on the production every single night, every single day, to help educate the public and Chicago, we need them,” Lightfoot said. “And we need management to come to the table with a fair offer to make sure that we can get this important programming that’s vital to our city back on the air.”

Rizzo points to the 2018 arrival of marketing and media veteran Sandra Cordova Micek as president and CEO of Window to the World Communications, parent of WTTW-Ch. 11 and classical music station WFMT-FM 98.7, as precipitating strained relations with the union, redefined job responsibilities, protracted contract negotiations and ultimately, the walkout itself.


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The WTTW proposals under Micek are “directly attacking the jurisdiction” of the technicians and a prelude to phasing out the union, Rizzo said.

“That assertion is false,” Julia Maish, a WTTW spokeswoman, said in an email Monday. “WTTW President & CEO Sandra Cordova Micek has never said this and in fact she makes clear that she supports and respects the work of our IBEW Local 1220 union employees. The work we do in service of the public depends on the experience, skills, and work of every employee on our team, including IBEW members.”

The station said it was the union that chose to strike after receiving the company’s latest proposal March 16, and that WTTW stands ready to resume negotiations.

When the strike was called at 6 p.m. Wednesday, WTTW scrapped that evening’s planned live broadcast of “Chicago Tonight,” opting instead for a taped “best of” episode. But Thursday night, WTTW resumed production of the nightly 7 p.m. newscast, with executive producer Jay Smith and other management personnel handling the technical aspects of the live broadcast.

“We are committed to providing the news reporting, context, and analysis to our viewers, and are grateful to team members from around the organization who are pitching in and helping to fulfill our mission,” Maish said.

It has been more than 20 years since Chicago broadcast technicians have walked off the job in a labor dispute. In November 1998, hundreds of members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians at the ABC television network, including those at WLS-Ch. 7 in Chicago, went on strike and were locked out by the network until the dispute was settled 11 weeks later.

Members of IBEW Local 1220 hold a strike event outside the WTTW studios in Chicago on March 21, 2022. WTTW union broadcast technicians went on strike last Wednesday after more than a year of negotiations failed to produce an acceptable labor agreement. The technicians are responsible for a number of productions at the local public TV station, including the nightly news show, "Chicago Tonight." © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS Members of IBEW Local 1220 hold a strike event outside the WTTW studios in Chicago on March 21, 2022. WTTW union broadcast technicians went on strike last Wednesday after more than a year of negotiations failed to produce an acceptable labor agreement. The technicians are responsible for a number of productions at the local public TV station, including the nightly news show, "Chicago Tonight."

The IBEW has had labor disputes in the past, but has mostly avoided strikes. A notable exception occurred in 1972, when IBEW workers went on strike for eight weeks against CBS-owned radio and TV stations in markets across the U.S., including Chicago. The major disagreement in that strike was also over jurisdiction and concerns about job losses by union members.

In addition to WTTW, IBEW Local 1220 represents employees at a number of Chicago TV and radio stations including WBBM-Ch. 2, WBBM-AM 780, WCIU-Ch. 26, sports talk station WSCR-AM 670, WGN-Ch. 9 and national cable channel NewsNation, among others.

Evan Metz, 33, an IBEW member and full-time WTTW employee since 2016, does lighting and staging work for “Chicago Tonight,” and previously worked on “Check, Please!” the locally produced dining show that ended its 20-year run on the station last year.

Metz said eight fellow IBEW technicians have retired or passed away, without their positions being filled, since he joined WTTW.

“The station basically seems content to wait us out until we age out,” Metz said after the rally.

A resident of the Avondale neighborhood on the Northwest Side, Metz said the quality of local programming will suffer without the technical expertise of the union members, something he said is already evident in the live “Chicago Tonight” episodes that have aired since the strike began.

Metz will not draw any pay during the strike, but is committed to holding out in order to bring WTTW back to the bargaining table.

“Everyone I’ve talked to is ready to be out here as long as it takes,” Metz said.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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