July 12, 2017

National Public Radio says contract talks with the SAG-AFTRA union that represents more than 400 on- and off-air NPR employees are “productive.”

The union says talks are “frustrating,” and “not going well.”

Becky Sullivan, a union shop steward and a member of the bargaining team, told Poynter that a federal mediator met with both sides Monday and Tuesday but talks are “still far apart.”  Pat O’Donnell, who is the chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA said it was the first time a mediator has been used in her 40-year history with AFTRA.

The current contract expired June 30th and NPR union workers agreed to stay on the job under a temporary extension that expires at midnight Friday.

“If we are not making progress, I would not rule out a strike authorization vote,” Sullivan said.

The two biggest issues revolve around the same point.

“They want the newsroom to cost less,” she said. “They are trying to lower salary minimums,” which she said would allow NPR to pay new hires less. And, she said, “they are really trying to weaken the power of the union. They want to write in more flexibility for outside people to do union work and take away the union’s ability to file a grievance.”

The union sent out this memo to workers:

For the first time in the history of NPR, a federal mediator came in today to search for common ground in our contract talks. The day was, frankly, frustrating.

We are canceling our noon meeting Wednesday because we have nothing of substance to share with you. However, we are planning many activities that will involve our membership, including a vital meeting at noon on Friday in Studio 1.

Management continues to insist on major takebacks from our contract. Faced with mediation, the company was unwilling to budge on any of its demands. We needn’t remind you of the many money-saving gains it has already made during these talks. Management is still not satisfied.

The only successes we can point to at this point include an additional week of parental leave and Management’s grudging willingness to drop many of its original audacious efforts to weaken our contract and limit our benefits.

There is essentially no give and take here. Absent an 11th-hour change, the company is planning to offer us an odious contract. We are deeply concerned that it will permanently damage the relationships that have been built over the decades and that drive the success of NPR. We don’t understand why the company has chosen this time of economic growth – not to mention astounding increase in audience – to squeeze the existing employees and to lower pay for new colleagues.

The company is setting up a bitter choice for us.

NPR issued this statement to Poynter late Wednesday:

NPR and SAG-AFTRA are having productive discussions with the assistance of a federal mediator and continue to work toward a mutually satisfactory agreement that meets the needs of NPR’s employees and our operations. Our goal is to make this organization economically sustainable for the long-term – and, importantly, enable NPR to invest more resources in expanding audiences, innovating its multi-platform journalism, and adding newsroom staff to meet that growth and support current staff.


The union’s memo and Sullivan said the union is planning “activities” that will draw public attention to the impasse.

NPR management and union workers both proudly point to the fact that public radio audiences have grown to new records for on-air programs, online content and podcasts.  In June, NPR rolled out its plan to launch a national “hub system” that would make it easier to connect local stations with the network news desks and to connect stations with each other.

The last contract worked out in 2015 covered 2016 through mid-2017 and included 2.5 percent pay raises each year. Under the last agreement, “NPR paid 70 percent of health insurance premiums, with employees paying the remainder.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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