For the first time since its founding 65 years ago, staff at KUOW-FM 94.9 in Seattle have unionized.
KUOW joins a list of public media organizations that have unionized under SAG-AFTRA over the years. SAG-AFTRA represents about 160,000 members nationwide, including public media professionals at National Public Radio, WNYC in New York and WBEZ in Chicago.
The new union affects somewhere between 50-60 employees at the station and includes announcers, hosts, producers, reporters and digital and engagement staff who want more say in the rapidly growing newsroom.
"A lot of things were happening to the newsroom without any say from the reporters, and we thought: Well, maybe if we have a union we can create a template where we can have more of a say," KUOW online editor Isolde Raftery said.
For example, Raftery, who was part of a large reorganization effort in the newsroom, says big changes often surprised some staff members.
“They would find out on the day it was being announced," she said. "Some of them in meetings would be in tears saying, 'Wait a minute, that's not at all what I want for myself.’”
Unionizing efforts were also about pay.
During talks, employees became aware of a job producer opening at KNKX, a smaller NPR member station in the Seattle metro area. The job posting, which included information about pay between $50,000-$57,000, came to the attention of producers in equivalent positions at KUOW who realized they were earning much less.
At the same time, according to Raftery, staff were learning about large donations the station received and money the station was spending on events.
"Our birthday month gatherings were really lavish, and we would sort of look at that and be like, 'That's a lot of money, why isn't this being put on salaries?'" she said.
The idea of unionizing has been floated at the station for years. The station, which is operated by KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio (PSPR) under an agreement with the University of Washington, KUOW's licensee, has seen new hires on all levels in recent years — including management.
That includes a new news director, chief content officer and executive producer for shows.
Though, staff insist the timing of their unionizing efforts were not a result of new leadership. Instead, they attribute their efforts to rapid growth and reorganization at the station and the city of Seattle.
"Seattle has just totally transformed," said Amina Al-Sadi, a producer with the station's talk show, "The Record." "I don't feel like our station has necessarily always been able to keep up as fast as the city itself on those changes."
Caryn G. Mathes, president of Puget Sound Public Radio and general manager for KUOW, said she wasn’t surprised to hear from employees about shortfalls in compensation, citing skyrocketing rent in Seattle.
“It’s in everybody’s — including our audience’s — interest to have well-compensated talent who feels engaged and rewarded,” Mathes said. “So I think to the end that it makes people feel even better about the work that they do then that’s a benefit for the audience."
According to Mathes, KUOW launched a compensation study late last year to compare the station’s salaries to the industry and the market. Mathes says the station has contracted for a comprehensive study that also looks at internal equity among reporters and producers.
“I don’t know that that’s something the station has checked before, but in talking to the staff I heard from them that this is a concern as well with internal equity,” she said.
Mathes said the study will also include non-radio station participants. She said recent employees who left the station were lost to podcasting ventures and not necessarily other radio stations.
Preliminary data could be available as early as next month.
Mathes said management was precluded legally from saying anything during the unionizing process, though she said if it had the opportunity, she would not have launched an anti-union campaign.
“Collective bargaining is our employees' right under the laws of the state of Washington and so we’re looking forward to just moving forward and engaging in collective bargaining,” she said.
Efforts to unionize were mostly led by reporters and young women at the station — including three pregnant women.
"We were pleasantly surprised to see the people pushing the union effort were young women and those who had a lot to lose. And they wanted this for each other," Raftery said.
SAG-AFTRA says 70 percent of the proposed unit of KUOW programming staff signed cards in favor of unionizing.
Employees are in the process of a bargaining survey to determine the specifics of their bargain in their first contract. So far, pay is a big issue.
“Sometimes in a newsroom, you can be a little siloed off between producers, reporters, announcers,” said Al-Sadi.
“But through this process we really came together to really talk about how we feel about our jobs, what we love, what we wish we could improve. It was really eye-opening to see how many issues we really want to better our station around and what things are working great.”