• Michael Fischer

Most bosses like to think of themselves as good bosses and the businesses they run as happy families. I imagine this is especially true at not-for-profits, where the pay might be modest but there’s a cause to be served, and a vein of idealism runs through everything. Is there a ruder awakening than the one that comes to the chief executive at such a workplace when workers knock on the door and announce they have petitioned to join a union?

On September 25 this happened to Alison Scholly, chief operating officer and interim CEO of Chicago Public Media. About 130 people work at CPM, and on Wednesday, December 18, the National Labor Relations Board will hold an election to establish whether the employees in the systems and content-creation areas—the journalists and techies—will choose to be represented by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

The two sides have done their preelection skirmishing in private, the employees refusing to say why they seek a union or who their leaders are. I respect their discretion; things said publicly during labor struggles tend to be the wrong things, not easily walked back after the dust has cleared. A public document filed with the NLRB by Chicago Public Media on December 4 supports this point; it shows management trying to fight off a union with arguments that in the eyes of some employees might make a union seem all the more desirable.

There are four editors in the WBEZ city room who Chicago Public Media maintains do not belong in the union because they’re management. On November 20, after a hearing at which the four editors testified, the NLRB’s regional director, Peter Sung Ohr, ruled against CPM. The four are Derek John, WBEZ’s community bureaus editor, who oversees the four reporters who man bureaus in Chicago and northwest Indiana; Cate Cahan, senior editor of the projects desk, who oversees two reporters and heads special projects; Aurora Aguilar, the metro desk editor, who handles breaking news stories and assignments, with three reporters, two producers, and a reporter/producer under her; and Lynette Kalsnes, the arts and culture desk editor, who has a reporter and a couple of temps working for her.

Ohr ruled that the four editors don’t possess enough actual authority to be considered exempt supervisors under Section 2(11) of the National Labor Relations Act. He said CPM “failed to meet its burden in proving the editors assign stories to City Room employees. Instead, the record shows that employees often generated their own story ideas, which were approved by editors as a matter of course.” Furthermore, they have little say in creating job descriptions, “routinely” approve time-off requests but never deny them, and play a modest and secondary role in hiring, disciplining, and rewarding the staffers under them.

CPM appealed. Until this appeal is answered (the SAG-AFTRA response arrived December 11), the votes taken on December 18 can’t be counted. So CPM may have bought a little time. But its employees are likely to note that to buy that time, it challenged the credibility of the four editors it insists are vital cogs of management, and risked embarrassing one of its best-known reporters by dwelling on the reporter’s performance issues.

We’ll start with the WBEZ reporter I’ll call X. (The CPM appeal made a half-hearted attempt to disguise X’s identity.) To assert the supervisory credentials of X’s editor, the CPM appeal examined the editor’s role in dealing with X’s “errant behavior,” which included “excessive push back and use of a raised voice.” (Apparently the WBEZ city room is unlike every other city room, where pushing back and shouting are as common to journalists as two hands are to second basemen.) The appeal went into great detail about the “performance improvement plan” (or PIP) that X was put on and that the editor was “responsible and accountable for implementing.” It noted that even after completing the plan, X “continued to experience performance issues.”

To show the editor at wit’s end, the CPM appeal cited several e-mails from the editor either to X or to X’s superiors.

“What’s on your plate today? I haven’t seen you in, and can’t find a note regarding today.”

“It ended up being a half hour edit for a 45 second item with a lot of arguing on [X’s] end. I just kept calmly explaining why logically the section didn’t work.”

“[X] thinks having to check with me before pitching a [story] . . . is a waste of time that gets in the way of [X] producing more content. All of these thing (sic) are my job, of course.” (Emphasis added by CPM.)

And et cetera. The point of citing these e-mails was to demonstrate that being X’s supervisor, the editor owned the problem. I’m not sure it shows that—after all, the problem wasn’t solved. But at any rate, to make a case about the editor it hangs X out to dry. The editor may or may not end up in the union, if there is one. It’s hard to imagine X voting against it.

Now let’s consider John, Cahan, Aguilar, and Kalsnes. Apparently all four support the union that CPM wants to keep them out of. Having testified at the hearing held to examine the nature of the work they do, the four editors can now read the CPM appeal framing them as hostile witnesses whose answers were intentionally misleading and who spoke the truth only when it was dragged out of you. The appeal is sprinkled with lines like these:

“The Editors’ feigned testimony . . . ,” “Kalsnes’ claimed ignorance . . . ,” and “The fact that the four Editors decided to ignore Chicago Public Media’s expectations regarding their role in the evaluation process, a fact that came to light for the first time during the hearing, does not exclude the four Editors from being statutory supervisors.”

And in summation: “The [National Labor Relations Board] Regional Director [Ohr] in essence is countenancing a group of supervisors who are marginalizing their Section 2(11) supervisory authority in order to support their desired goal of aligning their interests with the Union.”

If you took language like this literally, and your boss accused you of feigning and admitting and claiming ignorance, you would probably be looking for your hat, hoping to storm out with your dignity intact before you were sent packing. The thing is, anyone experienced in labor negotiations knows that language like this shouldn’t be taken literally; it’s tactical posturing, uttered for effect, never meant personally.

Still, it can sting. It can be remembered a long time. In no way does it contribute to a happy workplace.