Six years after initial petitions were filed, employees at CNN’s New York bureau may soon vote on unionization, following a recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board.

CNN has appealed the decision, and has until Feb. 24 to make its case. If the NLRB rules against CNN, the employees would then vote on whether to join the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees & Technicians.

At the end of January — in a move considered most unusual by all involved — the NLRB’s regional office issued a decision and directive of election; move was in response to a petition for unionization of the Gotham bureau, which had been filed six years ago.

Back then, CNN had asked the NLRB for a decision concerning which employees should be allowed to vote on the issue. CNN challenged some of the positions that the union considered eligible and sent the case to the NLRB.

The NLRB ruled on Jan. 29, and called for a vote to be held last week, although CNN immediately requested an extension to enable it to appeal. CNN has until Wednesday to appeal to the D.C. office of the NLRB.

“They’ve (NLRB) been sitting on this for six years,” said Bill Freeda, VP and grievance chairman of NABET Local 11. “What’s the quickest way to lose something? Give it to the government.”

In 1987, when the unionization movement at the bureau started, more than 30% of the eligible personnel filed necessary paperwork to join the union. Under the NLRB’s decision, some 80 people would be eligible to vote.

Typically, once the NLRB’s regional office issues a directive, an employee vote follows. However, now CNN is arguing, among other topics, that many of the people who voted six years ago are not in those positions today.

“We strongly oppose the use of a union,” said Allan DeNiro, corporate VP of human resources at Turner Broadcasting. “This is a 6-year-old set of issues.”

Moving on up

DeNiro issued a three-page missive to employees this week, saying that CNN is a dynamic place where people have been promoted within and there is room for growth. Memo also alerted them to the possibility of a union contact.

Local 11 representatives will mount a campaign to advise employees of the benefits union membership provides. Letters to CNN staff have been mailed, and other information will follow.

While there has been little upheaval among CNN New York staffers, some say they would welcome union representation. For years, according to some current and former workers, the network has paid less than its broadcasting counterparts.

CNN now is profitable while the network news divisions regularly run in the red. Others want the relative job security that comes with union representation.

Last week, CNN bureau chief Ken Chamberlain bought lunch for the entire staff , leading some to joke that with the union threat now realistic, there would be more free lunches as management attempts to soothe the employees. According to some staffers, free lunches became the norm when the initial unionization attempts occurred.

There is no other unionization activity going on at CNN’s main office or at any of its bureaus around the country. CNN New York does employ some union-represented workers through a sub-contractor.

DeNiro, union reps and even NLRB representatives concur in questioning the timing of the org’s ruling, with some linking it to the new administration.

“I think six years should at least be a question mark to everybody,” DeNiro said. “This is sort of like toast that pops up when it’s done.”

Asked if six years was the normal gestation period in a case like this one, an executive in the Washington, D.C., office said it wasn’t.

Elbert Tellem, acting regional director of the New York Office, admitted that the case may have taken longer than normal, but added, “The issues were very difficult, and there were also other difficult cases we had.”

NABET’s Freeda dismissed those arguments and said he could not recall a case that has taken this long.

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