A group of digital journalists at NBC News have asked the company to recognize their efforts to unionize, the latest sign of strife at the NBCUniversal operation to break out as it grapples with accusations of how it has handled recent employee matters over the past two years.
“There have been several different situations at NBC that have given us a pretty clear reason to fight for a protected voice in the newsroom,” said Tate James, a video editor who works on “Stay Tuned,” a video program NBC News has devised for streaming via the Snapchat social-media outlet. Among the policies desired by the approximately 150 employees who would take part in the collective-bargaining unit are better defined severance packages, rules about discussing matters via social media and salary distinctions, said James.
“We will address this request quickly, and will keep you updated every step of the way,” said Chris Berend, executive vice president of digital at NBC News Group, in a memo to employees Wednesday.
The group wants NBC News to recognize the union voluntarily, said James, though a majority of affected employees have already indicated they wish to move forward. “We’ve got the numbers,” he said, “but we would really prefer to figure it out with management.” The bargaining unit would include staffers from nbcnews.com, today.com, “Stay Tuned,” msnbc.com and NBC News Now, a growing livestreaming service NBC News has launched, but would not represent other parts of NBC News, or all of its digital workers.
NBC News has been under a microscope in recent weeks, weighed down by allegations contained in the recent Ronan Farrow book “Catch and Kill” that it asked the journalist to stop the investigation he had been conducting into accusations of sexual harassment by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. The book also contains new claims by a former NBC News staffer, Brooke Nevils, that former “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer raped her during NBC News coverage of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
NBC News has recounted all of its efforts to help move Farrow’s work along, suggesting the work he did for NBC News did not meet a standard of having a victim make allegations against Weinstein on the record and on camera. Farrow took his work to The New Yorker, and was able to publish a story seven weeks later that shared in a Pulitzer Prize with The New York Times. Lauer has vehemently denied the allegations made against him.
James said the company’s handling of the Lauer and Weinstein matters were among the factors pushing employees to consider forming a union, an idea that has been discussed among staffers for “well over a year.” They are not the only elements involved in discussions, he said, but staffers are increasingly interested in ensuring their workplace has systems in place that allow employees to voice concerns without fear of retaliation. The recent controversies, he added, put a spotlight on “the need for this. It really connected the dots in a pretty clear way for a lot of people in the newsroom that we need something that’s outside of the current structure.”
In the wake of Lauer’s dismissal in 2017, NBC News introduced new policies that gave employees new ways to report concerns. On Friday, after MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow interviewed Farrow on her primetime program, NBCUniversal released a statement saying it would release “any former NBC News employee who believes that they cannot disclose their experience with sexual harassment as a result of a confidentiality or non-disparagement provision in their separation agreement” from any perceived condition. “As always, we encourage employees to report concerns through one of the many available channels,” the company added, including through a hotline.
The digital staffers may have some leverage. NBC News has been ramping up its digital efforts in steady fashion. On Tuesday, Berend said in an internal message he wanted to hire 70 or more new employees and make NBC News Now a 24/7 live-streaming outlet. As part of those moves, he also said the company would reorganize some of its digital teams and lay off some employees.