Editorial workers at the politically complicated organization that is KPBS, the public broadcasting arm of San Diego State University, now have themselves a labor union, but the organizing process wasn't without contention, according to copies of emails turned over last week by the San Diego State University Research Foundation under California government transparency laws.
Licensed to the state university system by the Federal Communications Commission, the KPBS stations — including a San Diego TV and FM radio outlet and a radio station in the Imperial Valley — derive their funding from California taxpayers, federal grants, and private contributions, most notably from San Diego's richest man, billionaire Democrat Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs.
Cash in the latter two categories is funneled through the research foundation, which handles related administrative chores and a variety of other matters for the broadcaster. The president of the foundation is Elliot Hirshman, who is also president of the university.
When KPBS manager Tom Karlo — a state employee who makes $215,262, a year, according to an online California state salary database maintained by the Sacramento Bee — got wind of the news that editorial workers wanted to unionize, the foundation swung into action.
The non-profit obtained the services of Gregg Newstrand, a self-billed labor relations expert who has been "Chief Spokesman…in the negotiation of over 400 labor agreements," according to a profile on LinkedIn.
Nancy Worlie, the KPBS operation's director of communications, described the situation and advised staff of Newstrand's arrival in an October 9 email:
In early September, Tom Karlo received a petition from a group of KPBS staff members requesting that KPBS management voluntarily recognize them as members of the SAG-AFTRA Union and to begin the collective bargaining process
After careful deliberation, we believe KPBS employees need more information before making the very serious decision to unionize.
Just like a complicated news story, we believe everyone will benefit from thorough education on both sides of the issue so that in the event of a vote, staff will have all the facts to make their own informed decision.
To help educate staff, KPBS is working with professional labor relation consultant Gregg Newstrand. Gregg will be meeting with staff that have been identified by SAG-AFTRA as part of the suggested collective bargaining unit.
He will begin meetings starting tomorrow and for the coming weeks to discuss the union and answer any questions staff may have.
He has extensive experience on both sides of the issue and has a wealth of information that will help employees decide.
Worlie's email went on to make clear that the broadcast operation's powers that be were against the move.
KPBS strongly believes that a Union is not in the best interest of our employees or the future of KPBS.
We sincerely want what's best for our staff because you have helped build this organization from a college TV and Radio station to a trusted, successful and vital news organization that is respected locally and nationally.
Worlie's message was followed the next day by a counter view from departing KPBS reporter and union proponent Adrian Florido.
As many of you know, this was my last week at KPBS. I've accepted a position at KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, in Los Angeles. And yet, I still feel like part of the KPBS family.
That's in large part because of the close personal relationships I've developed with so many of my talented colleagues during the last many months that we've been working to build this union.
Our unity and collaboration in this effort have been remarkable. I've gotten to know people who, before this started, were just faces I passed in the kitchen or the stairwell.
The admiration I have for my colleagues has never been greater. More than anything, I've been impressed by the overwhelming sentiment by employees across content-producing departments that forming this union is the right thing to do.
Anyway, long-story-short, I just wanted to let you know that as this anti-union campaign begins, I'm with you all in spirit and in solidarity.
Despite Newstrand's efforts, Florido's forces carried the day, voting to join the union and begin negotiating a contract with the station, according to a November 18 news release posted online by SAG-AFTRA.
Exactly who will negotiate with the union and sign any resulting contract isn't made clear by the documents turned over by the SDSU foundation. Reached at his office in Kentucky, Newstrand said he had no plans to return to San Diego.
The records show that the non-profit paid Newstrand $300 an hour through an outfit called Cruz & Associates with an address in Upland, California. Four invoices from the company to the foundation total $56,648, including Newstrand's consulting fees, air travel, car rental, lodging and meals.
The Cruz website says the firm offers clients the ability to "respond immediately and effectively to union activity."
Few experiences in business are as counter-productive as a union organizing campaign. Such activity often goes unnoticed by management until it is well advanced. Cruz & Associates excels at rapidly mobilizing and implementing effective campaigns.
The firm did not respond to messages left with an answering service.
Asked for details about the invoices, Newstrand said he had not seen them and referred questions to the foundation, which did not immediately respond to calls.
KPBS spokeswoman Nancy Worlie similarly declined to comment, saying the Newstrand business had been transacted by the foundation.