Unions at tiny webs take on giant Univision

MEXICO CITY — Univision brass must have thought that compared to running the top Spanish-language net in the States, programming a pair of Puerto Rican stations would be a cakewalk.

Thirty months and a tangle of labor battles and flag-waving protests later, they might be rethinking that logic.

Since it took over the licenses of WLII-TV 11 in Caguas and repeater stations WSUR-TV 9 in Ponce, Univision has been met with constant challenges by a local union that accuses it of “cultural imperialism” as well as unjustly laying off local employees. It is now embroiled in an FCC probe into the licenses it holds.

In December, net said it would buy the two stations for $190 million, solidifying its position as the top-rated local station in Puerto Rico, as well as its presence and legitimacy in the market.

Yet sustained protests by the Union of Journalists, Graphic Artists and Related Occupations (Upagra), as well as non-labor groups like the Puerto Rican Alliance of Artists and Allied Groups, have shown the net that this U.S. commonwealth of scarcely 4 million people is a surprising hotbed of nationalistic fervor — at least when it comes to what’s on the boob tube.

At the heart of the protests is the fact that Univision’s programming contains almost nothing produced in Puerto Rico, and employs little local talent.

In the two local stations, as in the U.S., nearly all of Univision’s programming comes from Mexican giant Televisa, supplemented by material from Venezuela’s Venevision.

According to protestors, Univision reduced the number of locally produced shows to three from about 50 (something Univision denies), and in news programs pushes a political agenda that runs against common Puerto Rican sentiment.

The island’s status as a U.S. commonwealth is a matter of much debate in Puerto Rico, and the nation is split between those who wish to continue as is and those who would like to become the 51st American state.

The local resistance has led to labor problems for Univision, which has had difficulties in negotiating a contract with Upagra. In January the union contested the net’s right to have the local licenses before the FCC, which regulates airwaves in Puerto Rico. Net responded by filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against the union.

Some observers suggest that the claims of nationalism by the labor group are just a way to push for a better contract; indeed, Upagra has asked Univision to use local talent and crews, even for shoots outside of Puerto Rico.

Whatever the case, talks on a three-year contract are on hold, and Univision’s status on the island continues to be a headache for the Spanish-language giant — even though it still rules the local ratings.

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