About a month ago, NBC Digital News Guild members finally hit a breaking point.
For three years, they had been negotiating fruitlessly for what would be the first-ever contract between their union and NBC management. Their efforts even included the National Labor Relations Board upholding their unfair labor practice charge levied against NBC after it cut union members’ salaries in 2020 without any bargaining taking place.
Then, in mid-January, the company abruptly laid off seven News Guild members and prompted the union to file yet another unfair labor practice charge against NBC. The layoffs made it clear to many in the News Guild that normal bargaining tactics weren’t going to get the company’s attention.
“People were really fired up after this occurred,” Carlin McCarthy, a segment producer for the NBC News Now show “Top Story With Tom Llamas,” told the Union Progress. “If we’re not going to walk out over layoffs, what are we going to walk out over?”
On Thursday, 200-plus of the 300 NBC News, MSNBC and TODAY Digital workers represented by the News Guild staged a one-day walkout that included a morning rally outside New York City’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Their demands: Reinstate laid-off workers to their previous positions and negotiate in good faith to eventually codify a contract that will include layoff protections for all News Guild workers.
“It feels like a really incredible moment for our union because a supermajority of our union has decided to throw down and say this is serious and our colleagues are worth protecting,” said Tate James, an NBC News video editor and the guild’s unit chair. “It’s a huge step for our union to take.”
The NBC Digital News Guild’s big move follows a similarly high-profile walkout at The New York Times in December, the recently settled strike launched by employees of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in November and, of course, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh strike that has been ongoing since Oct. 18.
This latest walkout was teased the day before and became an official plan after the guild held one more round of contract negotiations with its parent company that, like the many before it, ended without any tangible progress being made.
“We are disappointed by the News Guild’s continued attempts to misrepresent the facts while we work in good faith with them to reach an agreement,” an NBC News spokesperson said in an emailed statement to the Union Progress.
James first got to NBC News a little over five years ago and has witnessed both the birth of the guild and the “slow deterioration” of its relationship with NBC management. He said that when the union first formally organized in December 2019, it didn’t do so because of any specific wrongdoings on the company’s part.
“A big motivator for us to unionize in the first place was that we wanted to maintain the situation we saw and increase the stability,” he said. “We wanted to make sure our benefits were not only good, but great and dependable.”
Shortly after the union was formed, NBC unilaterally lowered the salaries of about one-third of the guild’s membership, James said. That led to a 2½-year NLRB battle that the guild ultimately won and resulted in the company dishing out just shy of $400,000 to about 50 members in the form of returning their salaries to previous levels and back pay for the money they would have received before their pay was reduced.
Then, on Jan. 12, the company laid off seven union members and, according to James, also de-unionized a group of MSNBC employees.
“It felt a little like déjà vu,” James said. “Even the federal courts can’t get NBC to follow the law.”
For McCarthy, who serves as the guild’s first vice chair, those layoffs were the impetus for why “NBC has left us no other option” than to escalate their bargaining tactics to a walkout.
“In the immediate aftermath of the layoffs, it was, enough is enough,” she said. “We show up every day to work, we put the work in to make NBC News profitable and renowned the world over. They need to step up and recognize all the ways we contribute and, most importantly, our union.”
Both James and McCarthy feel that the company has generally displayed dismissiveness and downright disrespect toward their union. James said that NBC likes to tout its workers as being “the best in the business” but treats him and his colleagues “like we’re expendable.” In McCarthy’s experience, the company has shown time and time again that they are “wholly unwilling and uninterested to bargain in good faith with us.”
There was a mix of excitement and nervous energy going into Thursday’s walkout, they both admitted in their Wednesday interviews. As McCarthy put it, withholding labor is both a scary prospect while also being “the most powerful thing you can do.”
“We know if we don’t do this, nothing’s going to change,” James added. “I think we are ready more than anything, and we’re excited to have some fun and really make it clear to NBC that this is something important to us.”
This drastic action aligns with McCarthy’s belief that unionized media employees everywhere should have the “agency to decide what their newsroom looks like.” She had a simple yet forceful message for the company about how she would like the NBC Digital News Guild to be treated going forward.
“Stop union busting,” she said. “Stop bargaining in bad faith. And stop breaking the law.”