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NBC Challenges AFTRA Petition

The conflict over representation of eight on-air staffers at NBC's Telemundo station WSNS(TV) Chicago has moved to the National Labor Relations Board, which this week will be asked to consider exactly where those Telemundo employees work and for which company.

Responding to a petition filed with NLRB by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which seeks to represent WSNS on-air staffers, NBC objected to AFTRA's listing the address of the employer's establishment as that of WMAQ-TV, NBC's Chicago O&O.

NBC says that General Electric, not NBC, is actually the owner of the station and, therefore, the employer of the eight WSNS employees AFTRA seeks to represent. NBC has frequently referred to its purchase of Telemundo since late 2001—unofficially, the network says. GE is the owner, NBC the operator, and the network is insisting that the petition be accurate and the law followed to the letter.

But the dispute over the address more likely foreshadows the central conflict here: whether WSNS AFTRA representation would be part of a joint unit with WMAQ-TV's or the two stations' staffs will be dealt with separately.

In its arguments, AFTRA highlights the similar job functions among employees at the two NBC-owned—make that GE-owned, NBC-operated—stations. But NBC highlights the differences, noting that the stations are separate, even competitive entities with separate audiences, programming and revenue streams.

As NBC notes, the WSNS employees do not work at the WMAQ-TV facility. But AFTRA notes—and NBC does not dispute—that "NBC is currently in the process of merging the news operations of WMAQ and WSNS into a single combined facility." Nonetheless, NBC asserts that the petition, as filed, is inaccurate.

AFTRA has tried to pressure NBC into recognizing AFTRA as the bargaining unit for WSNS, based on a petition signed by all the WSNS employees. The union has also held an election in which the WSNS staffers again chose AFTRA.

The union enlisted the support of local community and religious leaders, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Chicago's City Council. Union supporters suggested that NBC was attempting what would amount to a two-tiered system of compensation, the lower tier going to Spanish-speaking employees. NBC has vehemently denied any such decisions based on language or ethnicity; the differences, the network said, are based on revenue at the Spanish-language station.

Despite the pressure, NBC held fast, insisting on an NLRB-supervised election, and, earlier this month, AFTRA finally asked for one. The union now says that, as it predicted, NBC is doing everything it can to stall or block an election.

"NBC can schedule an election, or they can fight it on legal grounds," said AFTRA attorney Lyle Rowen. "By challenging it, NBC will get a substantial delay." NBC denies that charge, too.