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May 24, 2024 30 mins

Mia talks with Tracey Wilson and Gnomes Griffin, two members of the iHeart Podcast Union's bargaining committee, about organizing media unions and getting through difficult contract negotiations.

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
All Zone Media.

Speaker 2 (00:05):
Welcome to it could Happen Here podcast about things falling
apart how to put it back together again, made by
iHeartMedia and I am your host, Nia Wong. So we
have been you know, this is our This is going
to be our first union doubleheader. We have two union
episodes in a row. And part of why we're doing
this is that we've we've been covering a lot of
very sort of very fast drives, very low to the

ground drives in small shops recently, and today we are
going to be covering a shop that is not like that.
It is very large, it is quite geographically diverse, and
it has been organizing for a very long time. And
that union is the iHeart Podcast Union. And with me
to talk about this is Tracy Wilson from Suffie Missing
History Class and Nomes Griffin, who is a producer on

many staggeringly too many shows. And yeah, they are both
on the bargaining committee of the iHeart Podcast Union. So yeah,
Tracy Nolmes, welcome to the show.

Speaker 3 (01:04):
No, thank you, We're glad to be here.

Speaker 2 (01:09):
Yeah, I'm excited. I'm excited to talk to you too.
So all right, first thing, first thing about this iHeart
Podcast Union. We haven't covered many media unions on this podcast.
We probably should do more, but it's been a sort
of product of of what kind I don't know, there's certa,
there are certain kinds of stuff that we've been focusing on,

but now now we're doing media unions. So the place
I wanted to start talking about the iHeart Podcast union
is the sort of scale of it. I mean, there's
people everywhere, like there are there are there are people
who are where there there's one union member in the
entire city, so you know, can we And it's also
been going on for a very very long time, so

I wanted to sort of ask, can you talk about
how this whole process started and kind of how long
it's been going on?

Speaker 3 (01:57):
So long? So long? I I was scrolling through my
phone today trying to remember when when was the first
time that I was contacted about unionizing, because the first
thing that happened for me was being organized into the
union before I Heart recognized us, and that was in

the fall of twenty twenty. In the fall of twenty twenty,
I got a text from my friend Lauren that was like,
can I talk to you about a kind of a
work thing. It's a kind of work. And I said sure.
And the question that Lauren had to ask me was
some of us are talking about unionizing, how would you

feel about that? And I said, okay, I need to
check my agreement that I already have with iHeart, because
a lot of us that I have individual agreements with
the company. I have worked in the job that I
have now in some capacity for almost nineteen years, so
I've been here forever and I already had this. I
was like, I need to find out does disagreement prohibit
me from doing this? It did not, And so I said,

all right, if I'm eligible to be in the union,
I'm on board. If I'm not eligible to be in
the union, you have my full support. And that was
in like November of twenty twenty, which is eons i'd
go at this.

Speaker 4 (03:17):
Point, Yeah, it's been I came on to the company
and the union was already in negotiations, Like, yeah, it
had been a union already. I started in January of
twenty twenty three, and I came like straight into the
we're in bargaining sessions process.

Speaker 3 (03:35):
Yeah. So the organizing process took definitely more than a year.
And that was more than a year of people talking
to all of their colleagues about whether they wanted to
form a union, what would be the benefits of forming
a union, all of that stuff. And so we have
three main offices at iHeart, there's New York, LA and Atlanta,

So there were people who were doing things on the
ground with people locally to them. But then also I
think it's something like a third of our unit is
not actually local to one of these offices. I'm not
local to in office. I live north of Boston. We
have like three unit members in the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
So this is like a really long process of getting
everybody on board and getting everybody to commit to saying

they wanted to be in the union, and then eventually
to sign union cards after all of that, that took
more than a year. We informed management of our intent
to unionize in December of twenty twenty one, and they
recognized us about six weeks later in February of twenty
twenty two. That took longer than we would have wanted.
There was some back and forth about exactly what roles

would be included in the union, and then also the
winter holidays happened in the middle of that, which, yes,
like those weeks don't exist for business purposes in a
lot of ways. We still got to do podcasts for them,
but nobody's at work, and so, you know, we were
recognized without having to go through an election with the NLRB,

which was great, but it did sort of feel like
it took a little bit to finally get the recognition
and then we started bargaining in May, so a couple
of months after that, and that was two years ago
that we started bargaining.

Speaker 1 (05:14):
Oh my god, yeah it's May now, it is May.

Speaker 3 (05:17):
It is almost June today.

Speaker 1 (05:19):

Speaker 2 (05:22):
Yeah, it has been a really quite long bargaining process,
which I think, I mean, this is something we've talked
about on the show before that this is a pretty
This is a thing that happens a lot for especially
for first contracts, is that companies will try to sort
of just wait the union out and try to because
you know, the if if you look at like the
places where unions fail, it's they either fail in sort

of like they okay, there's there's there's the failures where
like nothing ever gets started. There's the failures where they
they lose an election or they don't have enough people
to sign cards. And then the third place that they
fail is contract is the first contract. And so this is,
you know, a situation that I guess is not unexpected,

but is also negotiating a contract for two years just
is not very fun.

Speaker 1 (06:14):
Yeah, no, it's not.

Speaker 3 (06:17):
Our colleagues at WGAE, when we got ready to start bargaining,
tried to prepare us for the fact that eighteen months
to two years is fairly normal in the world of
media to bargain a first contract. I will readily acknowledge
that I was overly optimistic when we started. I would

not go so far as to say naive, but like
I thought it was a really good sign that the
company had voluntarily recognized us. I thought it was a
really good sign that WGAE had successfully negotiated other contracts
and that we were sort of drawing from a lot
of that contract. Language is our starting point, and I
feel like when you have all of the unionized podcast

shops having similar language to me, that language is now
becoming industry standard. So I expected less of a fight
over a lot of that than what we actually got.
And then also management hired an attorney that has negotiated
a lot of other contracts with WGAE was just all
stuff that I thought was seemed favorable, and then when

we actually got into the bargaining process, it has gone
on for so long and there have been so many
things that it has felt like we're just going around
in circles at the table.

Speaker 2 (07:31):
Yeah, So before we get into kind of what issues
are being circled around and what management has been doing,
I wanted to talk about what bargaining a contract is
actually like because I think most of the people listening
to this have never done it and only kind of
have a vague idea of what that means. So can
you sort of walk us through the I don't know.

So there's a week that has a bargaining session, can
you walk through the process of what goes into that.

Speaker 1 (07:58):
Yeah, definitely.

Speaker 4 (08:00):
In a week where we might have a bargaining session,
say we have a bargaining session on Wednesday and Thursday
as a committee will meet probably the Monday the Tuesday
to prepare whatever our counter proposals will be. So whether
or not that's on economics. So we're getting back and
we're adjusting our salary proposals that are going to go

across the table or we're adjusting what we're asking for
in severance, how many weeks of severance we're asking for.
So we'll spend some time as a committee going through
those proposals and basing our decisions off of like, this
is where we have an intention of landing, this is
where management is right now, this is what in our

conversations with the other unit members we've figured out is
most important.

Speaker 1 (08:46):
To people, So we'll make counters based on that.

Speaker 4 (08:50):
Lately, our sessions have those sessions have looked like preparing
to who in the committee is going to be presenting
that contract language across the table, So we'll divvy up
those presentations and Tracy might present on diversity, I might
present about the salary minimums. We might have another committee
member present on severans and things like that. So we'll

sort out who is going to say what, and we'll
also plan out any other sort of editorializing that we're
going to do across the table, like this is why
we're making a move here, because it's important to our
unit for this reason, We've also planned out actions that
we're going to do across the table and having unit
members read testimonials about certain contract items. So those are

all of the things that we might prepare for ahead
of the bargaining session, and then on the actual day
of bargaining session, we'll go in and we'll meet as
a committee in the morning. We're either presenting first our
proposals or management is presenting to us. As a bargaining
committee will be there to hear the proposals. There may

be some session that are more important than others, so
we'll invite the whole unit to hear those proposals, and
we will over those two days sort of go back
and forth, presenting across the table what our proposals are
and the counter proposals, and with the idea of like
getting closer to a contract that is fair and like

Tracy said earlier, industry standard.

Speaker 3 (10:21):
That sums it up.

Speaker 2 (10:23):
Yeah, And I guess this leads us to the second
part of contract negotiations, which is management's counter proposals. So,
you know something, something I think is kind of surprising
when when you do this for the first time, is
the extent to which management simply will not show up
on time. Yeah, yeah, So, how has it actually been

sitting across the table from management and you know, hearing
their counter proposals and dealing with whenever they show up.

Speaker 3 (10:59):
All of my bargaining so far has been happening on
the other side of a zoom or a team's screen,
since I'm remote to everybody else, which is a blessing
and a curse, right, I have kind of a buffer.
I'm not having to directly look at the faces of
the people who are coming in with salary proposals that

are dramatically less than what we proposed and what we
feel as industry standard at this point. But it also
means that like I'm by myself, I don't have somebody
near me to when like management leaves the room personally
react with. We kind of go around the circle in
the whoever's in the room and on the screen to

sort of say our reactions, but like it's lonely sometimes
to do it from afar, I do definitely have to
practice keeping my expression neutral because sometimes what we are
hearing is not neutral expression territory. And I also really

was not totally prepared to hear management justify their positions
on things like I will feel strongly that the correct
and most ethical thing to do is a particular thing,
and then management will explain their position on something and
I'll sort of be like, that's that's not the decision

I would like you to be making at all. And
I'm a little upset that I just heard you say
that just now.

Speaker 1 (12:30):
Yeah, yeah.

Speaker 4 (12:31):
And I'm in Atlanta. So most of our bargaining sessions
have happened in Atlanta. We have also have them in
New yorker le but so I have been in person
for most of the sitting down across from management and
like waiting a few hours after when they said they
would be ready to present their proposals, And it is

like tense and frustrating to sit in that and to
Tracy's point, like it is nice that we have the
rest of the committee with us to or whoever is
in Atlanta with us to sort of share in that together.
But the energy does get really tense at times, especially
in those situations where we've presented, hey, we would like,

however many days of bereavement leave so we can grieve
our family members, and then management comes back with an
offer that's like, well, what about just a couple of
days to grieve your dead family member? And so in
those situations where it's like, do you think of me
as a fellow human being, deserving of these like very

basic things to make my life.

Speaker 1 (13:39):
Livable, and then their answer sort of feels.

Speaker 4 (13:43):
Like a no, and you kind of just have to
like sit in that in person while they say it
to your face.

Speaker 2 (13:49):
Yeah, and I mean, especially when it's something that personal,
or it's that or if it's something that parental leave,
where you know, this is your child, right, and yeah,
you're sitting across the table from someone being like, oh, yeah, no,
you actually you should get like two days to deal
with this. It's just a brutal we had.

Speaker 3 (14:13):
It was a few months ago. We had a session
where we had a lot of testimonials that were accompanying
our actual contract proposals, and some of them were read
by the person who had written the testimonial, and some
of them were read by a different bargaining committee member
because somebody was just more comfortable remaining anonymous and having
somebody do that for them. And we had testimonials that

were all over the map in terms of things that
we were still in the process of bargaining, So we
had diversity testimonials, we had testimonials about parental leave, all
of this stuff, and one of the things that wound
up being just enormously frustrating was that it felt like
we went through all that and we presented so many
things about why this matters so much to all of us,

and the next round of counter proposals that we got
we're like the same negligible movements as from before. We
had all read all of the testimonials. And that was
not my favorite day of bargaining by far.

Speaker 1 (15:12):
No, Yeah, that one was not not fun to be
in on.

Speaker 2 (15:27):
And we are back. So, I mean, we've talked a
little bit about kind of belief stuff, and you know,
we've talked a little bit about some of the issues
that have been stuck in negotiations for two years. But yeah,
I wanted to sort of see, you know, talk talk
about sort of the specifics of of where of where

the contract negotiations are right now, and how far apart
the company and the union is. And also just and
this is something that I think has been a theme
of these negotiations is the extent to which management is
below industry standard. So yeah, I guess we could start
with sort of wages there because that's one of the

places where they're very much below standard.

Speaker 4 (16:16):
Yeah, I think we only have a TA on one
a TA being a tentative agreement on one title and
only for the rate that they're proposing in New York
City in LA. Another big thing with our minimums is
that they're different for producers and other titles living in
New York City in LA than they are for people in.

Speaker 1 (16:39):
Those roles in other cities.

Speaker 4 (16:41):
So, yeah, we are very far apart still on our
salary minimums.

Speaker 2 (16:49):

Speaker 3 (16:49):
When we put together our proposals on salary minimums, like,
we didn't make them up out of nowhere. We did
a lot of research on pay rates at other unionized
podcast shops and other podcast businesses. We came up with
numbers that felt fair and industry standard based on all
of that research, and then management just came in so
much lower than all that. And then as Nomes just said,

there's this differential they're proposing between New York and LA
and everywhere else. Most of our unit is not in
New York or LA. A big chunk of the unit
is in Atlanta specifically, and the cost of living in
Atlanta is just not that much lower than New York
or LA. At this point, we've also been way apart

on annual increases. Originally management was proposing not to have
annual increases in the contract at all. And they've moved
past that, but the current proposals are still way way
less than the rate of inflation.

Speaker 4 (17:45):
I mean it's about half, like half of what inflation is. Yeah,
like it does, it's not even inflation amount. And I
will say that, like for many of the job titles,
they're so far below what industries standard is.

Speaker 1 (18:00):
With the like very little.

Speaker 4 (18:02):
Incremental movement that they make every bargaining session, it's like
clear that they the company doesn't have any interest in
getting the industry standard, despite the fact that it is
like a large and well ranked podcasting company.

Speaker 2 (18:18):

Speaker 3 (18:21):
Yeah, we just got the Webby Award as Podcast Company
of the Year, and we continue to be like when
rankings come out of the biggest podcast networks, like we're
always at or right near the top of the rankings.
All of that, we have a lot of shows that

are really well respected in you know, whatever subject matter
they are discussing, whatever broadly speaking genre of podcasts, and
so it sucks to then look at pay scales that
just don't line up with that in terms of like

the minimum of what the company will commit to offering people.

Speaker 2 (19:08):
Yeah, and I think the person increase thing is really
frustrating too, because again, the way this works out with inflation.
And remember, so you know, if we started bargaining in
twenty twenty two, right, inflation in twenty twenty two was
like three like twice what it is now. And if
you're getting, if you're not getting, this is something I
think that's important for everyone to understand, is that if

you're not getting so for inflation right now is about
three point four percent, if you're not getting a three
point four percent pay increase this year, that means you,
like you are taking a pay cut every single year,
right And the fact that you know this is this
is what my management's proposal is you take a pay
cut every single year and you're supposed to be fine

with this is incredibly frustrating. And I don't I don't
think it's it's it's it's not really understood in in
terms of you're literally taking a pay cut very much.
It's just talked of like it it's something that's talked
about is just like another benefit, but like, no, we're
trying not to take a pay cut.

Speaker 4 (20:10):
But yeah, yeah, I would like to if my salary
is going to not take me any further at least
not take me any farther back. Yeah, I don't need
to lose money every year like I've done this year
in starting my second year at the company.

Speaker 3 (20:27):
Right, there's been a lot of people who have not
had a raise since like before the pandemic started, And like,
I'm incredibly lucky I have been at my job forever.
I'm on one of the biggest shows that we have
in the network. Like, I'm doing okay, right, But a

lot of my colleagues who work on shows that don't
have as much power, don't have as big of an audience, like,
don't have as much much of an ad budget, People
who have been with the company less time, people who
are like earlier on in their careers, especially like I've
watched these folks go through the last four years with

no increase in their pay, and like, I can see
people struggling now financially in a way that they weren't
struggling financially in twenty nineteen because their pay has not
changed at all. But the how much it costs to
exist in the world is so much more expensive.

Speaker 4 (21:30):
Yeah, we have some members right now who like would
receive a pay increase with what's being proposed currently, but
it is nowhere near the majority. Most people are going
to lose money with the numbers as they are right now.

Speaker 2 (21:59):
Yeah, and that's when the things that just you know,
I mean, and even even the sort of industry standard
in podcasting isn't great, but that's one of these things
that's you know, very much below industry standard. And there's
been another one of these things that I wanted to
talk about that's kind of baffling that I think everyone

involved thought that this would be something that there wouldn't
be a huge fight over. But that's at will employment
you talk about that.

Speaker 3 (22:28):
Yeah, yeah too, So just cause employment means your employer
has to have just cause to terminate your employment. Your
employer cannot just do it willy nilly. And it's a
core part of like the rights that union's bargain for
is to have a process for somebody to be disciplined

and lose their job. It's a very basic thing, basic
union protection. And the management has has held firm that
they basically want to not only have at will employment standards,
but like enshrine that in the contract.

Speaker 4 (23:08):
Yeah, meaning that they want to be able to fire
us for any reason at any time, regardless of whether
or not we've done something actually warrant that loss of
our income.

Speaker 2 (23:22):
Yeah, and that's something I think is really important that
I don't think people think about it this way. But
you know, both for if you're doing work that's politically
sensitive or also if you are marginalized, that is a
you know, not not having your boss not be able
to fire you for literally any reason is it's a
necessary piece of protection. And if you don't have that,

you can have a situation where I don't know, you
have one boss who's racist or one boss who's transphobic,
and you know, you and everyone like you's careers are
just gone. And without that kind of protection, you know,
it's it's incredibly it's incredibly dangerous for like for marginalized
people to you know, I mean even just like to

be able to speak up about things that are happening
to you, right like, yes, like tech technically speaking, retaliation
is illegal. However, commu see see the entire history of
labor in America and tell me whether it tell me,
explain to me whether or not it at it still
actually happens, especially when you can just fire someone for

some other reason or again in this case, you can
fire them for no reason.

Speaker 1 (24:29):

Speaker 4 (24:31):
Yeah, And it's it's a thing that is so baffling
because there's no union contract without just cause.

Speaker 1 (24:38):
Like there's a number of reasons why people unionize.

Speaker 4 (24:41):
Obviously we want better salaries, Obviously we want better healthcare.

Speaker 1 (24:46):
But there's you don't form a union and then still
allow a.

Speaker 4 (24:51):
Contract that says, yeah, and also though we can fire
you at any reason, because that is sort of the
antithesis of like what we're about, which is that there's
like due process and structures in place that like people
who provide the labor for this company can't just like
at a moment's notice, be out of healthcare and income

and all of that comes with that.

Speaker 2 (25:19):
Yeah, I mean politically, like it's it. And you know,
if you look at this as a political system, it's
a difference between pure dictatorial rule where everything is just
done purely by fiat right, where you know, like the
person who rules you can do whatever they want to you,
and there being something like a functional legal process which
constrains the power of rulers to just sort of enact
their will on you. And that's you know, an incredibly

fundamental basic part of what a union is is the
democratization of the workplace.

Speaker 3 (25:46):
Yeah, yeah, that's That's one of the things that I
think is so important about just the right to unionize
in general, that I think a lot of people who
have never been part of a union don't fully understanding
some of this based on comments I continually see on
ARII ads, which I am served all the time as

a person who hikes a lot, because currently their comments
on their ads are a whole lot of people saying,
stop union busting ARII. And then there are always people
who are like, it's retail. If you don't like it,
get a better job, or they're saying something like ARII
has always voted one of the greatest employers, like you
should just be thankful for what you have, And I'm like,

the thing is, though, an employer has so much more
power than an individual employee. Your employer has a whole
HR structure and lawyers and way more money than any
individual person working for them. And that's why employees have
the right to come together collectively to just balance that

out a little bit. Like a union is still going
to have a power differential between themselves and the company.
We have a whole lot more equity and a whole
lot more access to that power together then as one
individual person going to their manager asking nicely to have
a couple extra days off because their parent died or whatever.

Speaker 2 (27:11):
Yeah, as the old the Old song goes, what force
on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
but the Union makes us strong? Yeah, I think I
think that's a good sort of place to end on.
The negotiations are still ongoing, flying next week.

Speaker 3 (27:28):
To be there in person next week already. Yeah, Yeah,
a little scary. I don't know what to wear to
an office anymore.

Speaker 1 (27:38):
Oh see, and me either.

Speaker 4 (27:40):
I actually just show up how I am always in
my normal life.

Speaker 1 (27:44):
So I encourage you to do the same.

Speaker 3 (27:47):
Can I get a Union shirt from you when I
get there?

Speaker 1 (27:49):
Oh please?

Speaker 4 (27:50):
They're literally clogging my home and I would love to
give you one.

Speaker 1 (27:54):
So I have one of that, all right?

Speaker 2 (28:00):
So where where can people go to find the Union
and to support us.

Speaker 4 (28:04):
We are on Twitter at Iheartpod Union. We're on Instagram
also at Iheartpod Union.

Speaker 1 (28:12):
Yeah, that's where you can find us on social media.

Speaker 3 (28:14):
We're on Blue Sky at iHeart Podcast Union. I have
the keys to that one right now, and I have
not been really active with it. I'm sorry.

Speaker 4 (28:25):
Yeah, many an update goes out on the Twitter so
you can stay in touch there.

Speaker 2 (28:33):
Yeah, and in the in the meantime between now and bargaining,
this has been naked happen here. Thank you to so
much for coming on and yeah, let's let's go. Let's
let's let's get ourselves a good contract.

Speaker 4 (28:45):
Yeah, yeah, we're gonna get a good contract.

Speaker 1 (28:48):
And it is such a pleasure to work with the
both of you.

Speaker 3 (28:51):
Oh yes you, thank you so much Mia for having
us on.

Speaker 2 (28:54):
Yeah for sure, always happy to all right, and this
is also your daily union episode reminder that you too
can do this. You too can spend an enormous amount
of time going through a spreadsheet.

Speaker 3 (29:06):
And then finally spreadsheets.

Speaker 2 (29:08):
Turn it look. Unionization is the process of turning a
spreadsheet into into a into a fighting organization.

Speaker 1 (29:14):
You two can get lost in a sea of Google docs.

Speaker 2 (29:19):
But I promise you all, as as much as this
episode has been about, you know, the sort of stubbornness
of management and how you know, and how kind of
demoralizing that process can be, it is worth it, I
promise you all. It is and you can you can
do it too.

Speaker 1 (29:42):
It Could Happen Here as a production of cool Zone Media.

Speaker 4 (29:45):
For more podcasts from cool Zone Media, visit our website
cool zonemedia dot com or check us out on the
iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever.

Speaker 1 (29:52):
You listen to podcasts.

Speaker 2 (29:53):
You can find sources for It could Happen Here, updated
monthly at cool zonemedia dot com slash sources.

Speaker 1 (29:59):
Thanks for listening and

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