Battling noncompete clauses

Bills that would ban noncompete clauses in broadcasting contracts have been moving through legislatures in three states, and all three could face key hearings and votes this week.

In Washington State—where similar efforts failed in 1999—a new Democratic majority is seen as more receptive to labor concerns, and station management and its representatives there believe the fight will be much tougher this year.

When it comes to noncompetes, Missouri has been the "Don't Show Me" state. One Kansas City weatherman irked his former station by using his dog in commercials for his new employer during the noncompete period. An AFTRA-backed Senate bill (753) is scheduled for hearing tomorrow. A companion House Bill (1516) has not yet been assigned to committee.

Noncompete clauses prohibit staffers leaving a station from working in the same market for a proscribed period. On-air staff and producers and their representatives in most states have been unable to eliminate noncompete clauses through negotiations and have turned to legislation. Station management argues that it should have the freedom to negotiate, while leaving it to the courts to throw out especially onerous provisions.

AFTRA has been successful in lobbying to outlaw broadcasting noncompetes in Massachusetts and Maine and, last year, was successful in winning an override of an Illinois governor's veto of a bill there. A similar bill in North Carolina—which was introduced by a Republican—held better news for the opposing broadcasters by not passing.

Perhaps most surprising is the leadership for a noncompete ban by a Republican in right-to-work state Arizona, where AFTRA has no strong TV-news presence. AFTRA representatives are surprised by his support, says State Sen. Scott Bundgaard (Glendale). But, he adds, Arizona Republicans would do better in taking on labor issues than waiting for unions like AFTRA to gain a stronger foothold in the state.

Particularly troublesome for Bundgaard is the enforcement of a noncompete even when a staffer is fired. One former Arizona TV staffer told Bundgaard in an e-mail that "a noncompete is like having a bad ex-boyfriend: He doesn't want you, but he doesn't want anyone else to have you either."

Missouri Broadcasters Association President Donald Hicks, a former station general manager, says this is the third time AFTRA has come in with such a bill there but "legislation can be like Dracula: You think you have a stake through its heart, but you still have to be ever-vigilant."