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Guerrillas in the Midst 

Spy cam is just the latest shot in Channel 3's civil war.

The union pickets a live Monica Robins report at the - Rock Hall.
  • The union pickets a live Monica Robins report at the Rock Hall.
When employees at WKYC-TV Channel 3 found a camera hidden above the newsroom several weeks ago, General Manager Brooke Spectorsky claimed it was installed to catch a thief. To many workers, he came off as disingenuous. After previous thefts, management usually sent out a memo warning workers to watch their possessions and to report stolen property. But there was no memo this time, and the only item confirmed missing was a stuffed bird.

The spy camera just so happened to appear as tensions were rising between technical employees and management in a yearlong labor dispute. Some employees believe Spectorsky was simply trying to catch the anonymous authors of The Voice of the Union, a newsletter that spreads office gossip and mocks managers, which had been finding its way onto the company bulletin board. Others think the camera was installed to catch internal saboteurs.

"They obviously thought we were going to do something disruptive in their newsroom," says Ed Verba, a former Channel 3 cameraman and vice president of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians Local 42.

Paranoid though it may sound, management has cause for concern. For months, union members have employed guerrilla tactics to soil the station's image. Their goal has been to paint Channel 3 as the LTV of local news. "This is corporate America trying to squeeze us," says a union member who asked to remain anonymous. "People in this town, I think, resent those types of individuals."

Management and union have been divided since contract negotiations began in May 2001. Management wants merit-based raises, unlimited part-time employees, and the freedom to let non-union workers edit on-air material. Union members favor guaranteed wage hikes, limits on part-timers, and jurisdiction over editing. They say merit-based raises were tried under the previous contract, but management was chronically late in doing the evaluations.

The union began its attack on Channel 3 in August by passing out fliers outside Browns Stadium during a preseason game televised by the station. Later, union President Bill Wachenshwanz showed up in the crowd at the restaurant where Inside the Huddle With Butch Davis does its remote broadcast. In one shot, he carefully positioned himself to show off the union logo on the back of his shirt. In another, he held up a sign reading, "No way to merit pay."

"The director would go crazy," says Wachenshwanz. "He didn't know what we were going to do."

But the stunts didn't win concessions from management. In January, the station issued its "final offer." When workers rejected it, Channel 3 implemented its new contract anyway.

Union members voted to authorize a strike, but it was something of a paper tiger, admits Verba. "In our business, you're stupid to go on strike," he says. "They'll play I Love Lucy all day long and just stay on the air and collect their advertising revenues." Instead, the union amped up its guerrilla tactics.

On the first day of the Winter Olympics, broadcast on Channel 3, the union held a press conference outside the station's Lakeside Avenue headquarters and presented management with a gold medal for being "last place" with workers.

In March, during a live broadcast at the Rock Hall, Wachenshwanz sneaked up behind reporter Monica Robins with a picket sign reading, "WKYC unfair to workers." Robins was so oblivious, she inadvertently drew attention to a second protester by pointing over her shoulder. Two days later, Wachenshwanz picketed on-air again during a Dick Russ report from Parma City Hall.

Management responded by filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Wachenshwanz of unfair labor practices. Managers also checked employees' cell phones to ferret out who tipped off Wachenshwanz, workers say. (Wachenshwanz, a Channel 8 cameraman, says he didn't need a Deep Throat to guess where the live trucks were going. "You just gotta know how the game is played," he says.)

If the union's actions sometimes seem desperate, they say it's only because Gannett, which owns Channel 3, is more intent on breaking unions than negotiating with them. "The one thing I found out is, they hate unions," says George Payamgis, a Channel 3 cameraman. "And they'll spend a million dollars to break a union instead of spending a couple thousand to make workers happy."

Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper company and owner of 22 television stations, is considered something of an Antichrist among media workers. It has a reputation for high profits, low quality, and healthy anti-union instincts. A 1993 Columbia Journalism Review story criticized the company's practice of "sending the same corporate team into each contract negotiation, putting an offer on the table that includes, among other nettlesome issues, giving the company complete control over wages, and then saying the offer is final."

The company's anti-union label was cemented during a dispute at The Detroit News, when workers struck for 19 months. Even after an agreement was reached, Gannett refused to hire back many of the strikers. "Who in their right mind would go to Detroit, Michigan, and decide to have a union fight in the strongest union town in this country?" Verba asks.

Yet General Manager Spectorsky says the union's publicity stunts won't bring management back to the table. "It has the opposite effect," he says. He defends Gannett's unwillingness to bend, saying the union wants provisions that would hurt the station's ability to compete. "We want to treat everybody the same. That's what Gannett is all about."

But according to Wachenshwanz, Channel 3's workers aren't asking for anything more than what their counterparts at other Cleveland stations have. Those contracts guarantee pay increases and limit part-timers, he says. At Fox 8, non-union workers are allowed to edit, but the contract protects union members from being laid off because of it.

The union hasn't given up trying to bring Gannett back to the table. It's bought placards on city buses telling viewers to "Turn Off Channel 3." And Wachenshwanz won't rule out another protest during a live report. After all, this is the middle of sweeps. Stay tuned.

More by Kevin Hoffman

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