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The ‘Value’ Of Being Union-Represented To News Workers Becomes ‘Crystal Clear’ In Al Jazeera America Shutdown

Published Tuesday, March 8, 2016
by Janelle Hartman/The NewsGuild-CWA

January’s news that Al Jazeera America would shut down this Spring came as a huge blow to the company’s Journalists, but it also illustrated the difference a Union makes.

An overwhelming majority of Employees in Al Jazeera America’s Digital Newsroom, a unit of nearly 50 Media Workers, voted in October to join the New York NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America (CWA).

They were getting ready to bargain a first contract when the company announced plans to shutter operations in April, timing since moved up to February 26th.

Even without a contract, the new Guild Members had a strong, collective voice that they used to full avail.  They were able to negotiate better Severance Packages than the company’s original offer, as well as language ensuring Workers would receive those benefits - even if they found new jobs before Al Jazeera America went dark.

As the clock ticked down to closure, New York Guild Representative Susan DeCarava said Bargaining Team Members were “still crossing their ‘t’s’ and dotting their ‘i’s’ and making sure people are taken care of.”

She and New York Guild President Peter Szekely had high praise for the team, impressed by the accomplishments of Workers who’d had no prior experience with contract talks.

The team went in with the mindset that “we’re going to bargain and we’re going to get as good a severance package as we can,” said Rick Freeman, a Team Member and Al Jazeera America Copy Editor. “We met five separate times and we reached agreement on a ‘pretty good deal.’”

DeCarava said that despite the company’s relatively generous offer upfront, the Guild saw loopholes it had to close.  With Retention Pay, for instance, the company appeared to be giving with one hand and taking with another.  To try to keep essential Employees on the job while winding down operations, Al Jazeera America offered an extra day’s pay for each day worked, but Workers risked losing those earnings if they didn’t stay until the end.  “We viewed it as kind of being the equivalent of a ‘non-compete agreement,’” DeCarava said. “If people wanted to ‘maximize’ their severance package, they had to ‘sit on their hands’ for three months.”

Unit Chair Gregg Levine, an Al Jazeera America News Editor, said while the company may have seemed generous in offering eight weeks’ pay, COBRA Health Care Coverage for up to a year and Retention Pay, it was “throwing some generic money at a problem” without considering the specific needs of its Employees - and that’s where the Guild came in.

“It showed something I feel like I’ve been expressing since we started organizing - that ‘it always pays to push,’” Levine said.  The company “had needs and goals in this situation that ‘we could make easier or harder’ for them.  In exchange for making the ‘wrap-up quick and tidy,’ we were able to get some guarantees.”

Another victory was making sure Workers would get paid for comp time they’d earned, including any accrued during the shutdown period - a time when they’ve have no opportunity to use the days. 

The deal the team hammered out won unanimous ratification from the Al Jazeera America Unit.

“People were ‘really, really grateful’ to the Guild,” DeCarava said.

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