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Production technicians secure contract with Chicago Public Broadcasting Service following 23-day strike

The technicians' three week long strike was the first ever called in 67 years of their union working with the PBS station.

CHICAGO (CN) — International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1220 ratified a new three-year contract with Chicago's Public Broadcasting Service on Thursday, ending a strike that began on March 16. Production technicians had been working without a contract at the PBS station, known in Chicago as WTTW, since last July.

IBEW Local 1220 began working with WTTW in 1955. This was the first strike the Local has ever called against WTTW in that entire time.

"WTTW is pleased that we have reached an agreement with our IBEW Local 1220 employees, who ratified the company’s contract proposal today," A WTTW spokesperson said in an email.  "Throughout this negotiation, we placed the highest priority on negotiating in good faith, taking care of our employees, and ensuring that all information we communicate is factual."

According to a statement put out by Local 1220 on Thursday afternoon, technicians will return to work on Friday. Local 1220 Business Representative Brett Lyons said the new contract includes an immediate 3% pay raise for all union members at the station, along with a Covid-19 stipend and a 5% pay raise starting this July. Workers will see further 2.5% raises annually in July 2023 and July 2024, before the contract expires in July 2025. The station also promised to hire more full-time unionized staff, which will protect Local 1220's bargaining power in future contract negotiations.

“It has been a very difficult last ten months with this company across the table, but we have achieved our ultimate goal which was to reach a new contract that was fair for the members," Local 1220 Business Manager John Rizzo said in the prepared statement. "Our mission was to protect jobs and jurisdiction for both current and future generations of workers employed at WTTW."

The seeds of the strike were sown in May 2021. In the midst of contract negotiations, Lyons said WTTW — short for Window To The World — began making demands of the union workers that they couldn't hope to meet. The publicly-funded station wanted to expand operations to compete with far wealthier private news outlets in Chicago like WGN.

"They presented us with an exhaustive laundry list of changes," Lyons said. "Our biggest issue was they wanted to do things like WGN, which has basically 24/7 coverage. They weren't willing to set their sights lower."

Lyons explained that the union just didn't have the numbers to meet the proposed changes, which included labor possibly outside of IBEW's jurisdiction. Local 1220 has actually shrunk in recent years as many older members of the union have retired, without the station hiring new blood to replace them. This was a particularly concerning issue for the union, Lyons said, given the many responsibilities assigned to IBEW members at WTTW.

Camera operators, lighting experts, graphic artists, technical floor crews; all are represented by Local 1220 at WTTW and Lyons said all were feeling the strain of under-staffing.

"They weren't back-filling new staff... Attrition was an issue," Lyons said, also alleging that WTTW had attempted to pass off the excess labor to non-union workers.

IBEW members and sympathizers also criticized WTTW for cancelling Local 1220 technicians' group health insurance plan on April 1. Coming at the height of the strike tensions, the Chicago Tribune quoted Rizzo as calling the cancellation an "evil move."

Despite the criticism, WTTW's spokesperson said the station remains pro-union and is committed to supporting its workers moving forward.

"WTTW has a long history of supporting and employing unions, whose skills and talents have been a critical part of the fabric of our organization and our service to the community for decades. We are a firmly pro union organization," the spokesperson said. "The terms of our new contract, effective today, embrace change and new ways of working, are critical to our collective and continued success, will protect and create jobs, and are in line with the contracts of other media companies across the city and the country... We look forward to welcoming our IBEW colleagues back to work on Friday."  

With the end of the strike, Lyons reported that WTTW had agreed to "make [their] members whole" and restore the technicians' health insurance. Lyons said the station also agreed to submit any new production technology to labor committees so that the union could determine whether the technology was within Local 1220's purview.

"If a new piece of technology comes in, we can put committees on it, to see if its something we can do," Lyons said.

Local 1220's strike attracted high-profile support over the course of its 23 days, including from Illinois Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, Democratic Congressional Rep. Marie Newman, and Hollywood's Stage Actors Guild. Chicago City Councilors Rossana Rodriguez and Raymond Lopez also extended their congratulations to the union on Thursday afternoon after the Local announced it had ratified a tentative agreement reached with WTTW on Wednesday night.

Rizzo acknowledged this support in his Thursday statement, along with that offered by other IBEW chapters and organiztions like the Chicago Federation of Labor. His remarks played on the national Public Broadcasting Service's famous slogan that its programming is only "made possible by viewers like you."

“In true PBS style, I would say that the overwhelming support for the workers on strike was made possible by viewers like you," Rizzo said. "Thank you.”

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