No Cheers for the HomeTeam

Workers at channels 19 and 43 do twice the work for half the pay -- and they're pissed.

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The Fast and the Furious
Every time the phrase "HomeTeam 19/43" flickers onto Cleveland television sets, there's a guy in a studio who inserted a tape to make it appear. And to that guy, the slogan sounds like bullshit.

His bosses couldn't find Terminal Tower. Their home is Montgomery, Alabama, and they've never met most of their staff. That's probably a wise decision. If channels 19 and 43 are still a team, it's only because they're united in mutiny.

"We love what we do, we love the people we do it with, but we hate the people we do it for," summarizes one worker.

Raycom Media Inc. owns WOIO 19/ WUAB 43, and workers blame it for the wild cost-cutting around the station, a process that's eliminated friends, multiplied workloads, and stagnated wages. The two stations have long been near the bottom of the ratings pile, but morale has never been this bleak.

It began its descent three years ago with one bad idea. Raycom, a fledgling media company with stations in such remote locales as Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Kirksville, Missouri, set its sights on big-market TV. With financial backing from the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA), a pension fund for state teachers and other employees, Raycom purchased Malrite Communications. Malrite owned several stations, channels 19 and 43 being the largest.

This was the worst time to invest in local network television. Though the industry tends to be enormously lucrative, cable and the Internet had already begun to carve into the advertising dollars and audience at local stations, and many were showing negative growth for the first time.

In Cleveland, a station has to spend money to make money. It had better have a fleet of news vans, at least one helicopter, and on-air talent that commands million-dollar contracts. Behind the camera, it needs experienced hands at the controls -- hardy veterans who can wake at the sound of a pager and be at the station inside of 20 minutes to fix a transmitter. The best have tenure, and tenure costs money.

Yet Raycom figured it could cut corners with behind-the-scenes staff. Only nine months after buying the stations, the company laid off 55 workers, most of whom were in production. Those who survived found their jobs included a new set of duties -- those that had formerly belonged to a full-timer, in addition to their own.

Editors, who could previously afford to be diligent, even creative, were told to finish early so they could line the tapes up before the newscast. The tape operators had been laid off. The director, who had traditionally coordinated the duties of the technical director, was now expected to man both jobs, because the technical director was either laid off or controlling the camera robot, which was purchased to replace the three cameramen who were fired.

"We ran around like chickens with our heads cut off," says Mark Tetlak, a videotape operator.

If workers became more efficient, they didn't see the rewards. Raycom aimed to cut nearly every benefit, say employees, and wages rarely rose beyond 3 percent. "It's like 'Thanks for staying and working with us. Here's your raise, and with inflation, you're actually making less money than last year,'" jokes one worker.

Even with the overtime, the production staff can't make a comfortable living. "I've been there six years, and I'm a college graduate," says one man. "It's going to take me 10 years to make $30,000."

Had the man accumulated that experience at Fox 8, he'd already have a salary in the mid-$50,000s. Tape operators are hired for $19,000 and might get to the mid-20,000s in five years. At Fox, they'd be making $50,000 with the same experience. In one case, a production worker quit to work vacation relief at Fox; he made $13,000 more in nine months than he did in his previous 12 months at channels 19 and 43.

Those who remain have taken to calling their stations the "FarmTeam" rather than the "HomeTeam," since so many ex-staffers populate other studios. "People have tended to bail whenever possible," says one worker. "Channels 3, 5, 8 have no trouble hiring right now, because as soon as they have an opening, one of us is there."

So in March 2000, the HomeTeam's production staff unionized, voting itself into the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians. Emboldened by a collective bargaining unit, workers invited management to the table to hash out a contract.

The union says it was willing to accept management's reduction of benefits, if it could be offset with more promising wage increases. But negotiators say Raycom wanted to cut benefits and slow down wage increases.

(Clyde Baucom, the company's vice president of human resources, said Raycom would not discuss union negotiations or working conditions at the stations. General Manager Bill Applegate did not respond to interview requests.)

Union negotiators have been told that Raycom has nothing to give, that it's sending all station profits to RSA, its principal investor. (RSA's Montgomery-based chief, David Barron, did not return numerous calls.) But Bill Wachenschwanz, president of the union, says it would take only $40,000 in concessions by management to get the contract signed. Raycom told him that's out of its price range.

"They say, 'We're fully leveraged, living on borrowed money,'" says David Radtke, the union's attorney. "But when we ask them if they're having a hard time financially, they say, 'No, we're not pleading poverty. We're doing well.' They talk out of both sides of their mouth."

In March, as workers marked their first anniversary as a union station, the sides were still nowhere near an accord, and management fired 16 more staffers. The past year was the most grueling anyone can remember. It saw about 20 others leave, either for better jobs or just to escape what they call the "meat grinder." Management was slow to fill those positions, if they were filled at all.

"When a union person quits, they've decided not to replace that person with another full-timer, and they hire a freelancer on a full-time basis instead," explains one worker. "They pay [the freelancer] about minimum wage, so it's cheap labor."

As miserable as the conditions are, employees know it's better to have a paycheck than to be looking for work in Cleveland's limited television market. So they try to outlast the storm.

"People who've been in this business 20, 25 years are at their absolute psychological and emotional low right now," says one employee. "They've never been at a place so demoralized. They've lost their friends and co-workers, and everybody who's left fears for their jobs and livelihood."

Even sick time is a luxury few can afford. One producer works as she coughs up blood from an ulcer. With only one or two people qualified for particular jobs, one man's sick leave or vacation means others will be thrown into duty for which they're unprepared. When the sports staff was short, a high school boy who thought he was on a job shadow was thrust into action.

"This kid's four and a half feet tall, and they gave him a camera, sent him down to get post-game sound for the Indians," says a worker. "So this is our Channel 43 representative, and he's there interviewing Jacob Cruz."

With 91 layoffs over the last two years and the 20-some other departures, 19 and 43 are operating two stations with a single production staff that is smaller than any other station staff in town, employees say. Consequently, staffers barely have time to check if the anchors' mics work, if tapes are in the correct sequence, or if words in graphics are spelled correctly. If there's a factual error in the 6 p.m. newscast, it probably won't be caught by 10 or 11 p.m., because the midlevel managers responsible for checking have either quit or been laid off. Management has also been slow to fix news vans, so when four stories break at once, the station summons a tow truck to drag their van to a location.

Many in the production staff admit they no longer take pride in their newscast; they're just happy if they can get through without a major gaffe. Still, tapes show video for the wrong story. Picture boxes over the anchors' shoulders drift behind their heads while camera operators tend to other tasks.

"They want us to do TV news the way they do it in Mansfield or Shreveport," says one staffer. "We look like college television."

"We can't even compete in our market anymore," adds another, shaking his head. "No matter how hard we work, we'll fail."

Most admit they're looking elsewhere for work. If they persist with their union activism, it's no longer for their own benefit. "It's too late for us," says one. "We just want some ground rules for the people who come to work here in the future."

Since talks broke off at the end of May, union stewards have taken drastic measures: They wrote to major advertisers, explained the impasse, and asked that they pull their ads until the dispute is resolved. Those who continue to advertise may soon find workers handbilling in front of their buildings.

The union has also sent plenty of mail to Alabama. Ironically, the very people Raycom and RSA are making money for are union folk. RSA's two biggest investing groups are Alabama's unionized teachers and state employees.

"It's ridiculous that a teachers' union and their pension funds are doing this to union people in Cleveland," says Radtke. But so far, members of the pension fund board have not acknowledged the union's letters. David Stout, a spokesman for the Alabama Education Association, says he's heard zilch about the dispute. And if the appeals eventually do reach Dixie, they'll be met with little sympathy.

"Newspapers down here call us a 'union,' but we're not a union like you know it," Stout says. "We don't bargain. We mainly lobby the statehouse. Education employees in Alabama see themselves as professionals, not unionized employees. It seems like that's the more modern way of thinking."

Cleveland union members wouldn't use the word "modern." They prefer "ignorant." Ed Verba, a retired WKYC-TV/Channel 3 technician, figures that, if an Alabama firm doesn't like workers' rights, it shouldn't be buying in Cleveland.

"These southern companies buy northern companies, and they really don't know how to deal with unions," he says. "They deal in right-to-work states that treat unions like social clubs, and they figure, 'No one's going to tell us how to run our business.' You have to kind of show them that we're just out to protect the interests of workers."

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