• Panel Presentation:  Framing of Labor Unions in the Media
  • Q&A with Panel
  • Public Comment
  • Community Advisory Board Business

Opening Remarks

Chair Barbara Gerolimatos introduced herself, described the purpose of the CAB, and announced that the new chair for the 2018-19 session will be Nancy Walcott.


Panel:  Framing of Labor Unions in the Media

Erica Johnson, CAB Vice Chair, Moderator

Esta Bigler, Director, Labor and Employment Law Program, Cornell ILR 

Eugenio Villasante,  Director of Communications, 32BJ SEIU

Jim O’Grady, WNYC News Reporter


Esta Bigler began by explaining the four major themes in US labor law:  Master-Servant, Property Rights, The “Many” v. The “One” (where a company is a single individual), and The Union as “Other”. She defined Unions as complex political organizations that effect change and whose job is to take care of union members as a collective, including collaborating with community organizations. 

Historically, there has been a legal discomfort with workers joining together collectively to deal with their working conditions. In the US, there is a divide between the public and private sector unions. There is no precedent setting federal law; thus, each state legislated unionism as it liked. While the First Amendment allowed for the right to join a union, many states did not permit collective bargaining (unions acting on behalf of its members). The first labor union case in 1806 found the union to be an illegal conspiracy because it was impacting the property rights by reducing profits of the employer. Other precedent-setting cases involved the carpenter’s strike of 1890, which resulted in the 8-hour workday, and the female shirtwaist workers’ up-rising which resulted in health and safety laws. The United Auto Workers (UAW) was responsible for employer-funded pensions and employer-subsidized health insurance. Currently, the main issue for unions is a $15 minimum wage. She also noted, that with the passing of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, there was finally a recognition of the imbalance of power between an employer and a single employee (with farm or domestic workers excluded) and granted the right to self-organization to all employees. 

Eugenio Villasante discussed how workers perceive and utilize the rights granted by the NLRA.  The 32BJ SEIU union represents 175 thousand building service workers (90 thousand in New York alone), including building porters, handymen, and office cleaning staff. Villasante noted that currently unions are viewed favorably: the most recent Gallup poll indicates that most Americans think unions are a positive force in the country. The essence of 32BJ SEIU’s work is bread and butter issues”, such as wages (83 million Americans earn less than $20/hour) and healthcare costs, which are renegotiated with employers every 4 years. 32BJ works for everyone, not just union members. Villasante expressed the desire to see more press coverage of the overlap between family and community (the basis for unionism) — members are “fighting for families”, so people can provide for their families, send their kids to college, etc.  Villasante then showed a video, part of 32BJ SEIU’s “Building Justice” campaign. 

Jim O’Grady (who was not speaking for WNYC) described himself as “agnostic about labor unions”. He is currently working on a series on labor unions in New York; he also has direct experience in union organizing. While working for a nonprofit providing services to the homeless, O’Grady organized a union drive. In response, the nonprofit hired an advisory firm to make it difficult for employees to organize. The day after the organizing drive was lost (by one vote), management fired him. He followed-up with a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (derived from the NRLA), because that is where labor laws can be enforced. Unfortunately, presidential administration viewpoints influence NLRB rulings because of the power of presidential appointees to the board. O’Grady described a second organizing attempt in the mid-2000s at NYU where 65% of the classes were taught by adjunct professors, who were underpaid and exploited. The adjuncts organized and despite being a legally recognized collective, NYU stopped bargaining.  In response, the union set strike date. Within 6 hours of the strike start, NYU agreed to negotiate. The adjuncts’ union was working with the UAW, which had a very large strike fund, and once NYU realized the adjuncts’ strike would not end quickly, the university agreed to negotiate. 

O’Grady indicated that he was on the union organizing committee (SAGAFTRA) for WNYC. When the digital side of WNYC began 8 years ago, these employees were institutionally separate and ineligible to join the union.  The digital group of 80 employees were recently permitted to join the union, once it was agreed that the current union members would forgo raises. O’Grady noted that media coverage abuse of power cases could affect people’s perceptions of unions. An example of this is WNYC’s Stephen Nessen’s story about LIRR and overtime pay spikes, i.e., one employee earned $344K in overtime alone.


How do unions decide which side they want to be on, i.e., different positions were taken re Amazon

O’Grady noted that construction workers union were in favor of Amazon coming; so was 32BJ SEIU. Other unions noted that Amazon doesn’t have any union member and that they stop any unionization among their workers. Amazon would not commit to not doing that in NYC. Villasante noted that Amazon is already here. 32BJ agreed that Amazon needed to get organized, but it was in favor of Amazon coming because 32BJ saw it as having a positive impact on jobs, tax revenues, and development of NYC. Amazon was going to build a facility, staffed with union security and maintenance.

Bigler noted that now we see states competing for financial benefits to win corporation HQ sites, almost in a “race to the bottom”. She prefers to see benefits delayed until jobs are created, and that progress payments be made instead. In NYC, a labor agreement was at stake: that Amazon agree not to oppose organization. This wasn’t just about NYC but about organizing in Amazon throughout the country. In the NRLA, originally employers did not have the right to oppose unions, but the act was amended to provide that right on the basis that otherwise it impeded on employer free speech. Bigler further noted that current organizing is based on a 1935 automobile model, yet in the current gig economy, independent contractors are not entitled to the benefits of employers (social security, workers compensation, discrimination laws). Until workers are listed as employees, they have no rights. Unions have a big role to play here



An attendee expressed concerns about WNYC’s coverage of unions: what is the media’s role? what about WNYC? A lot of us are getting killed outside of New York (upstate Mott’s worker). WNYC plays a role — talk to us about what labor laws do and don’t cover. Let’s stop interviewing the same people, let’s broaden the spectrum. Why isn’t WNYC talking more about organizing? I am mad about the state of reporting on labor laws and unions on WNYC. I feel like it’s crisis attraction/reporting. 

Carol Chervin (CAB member): We have two goals for the CAB — whether the station is meeting the needs of the community. One way of meeting that need is to report on union organizing and what unions do. Can the panel tell us if there is anything that union members would want to hear on NYC?  Villasante noted that 25% of workers in New York State are union members, so they care about the same things that other audience members do: education, immigration, good public goods.  He offered to poll his members to give CAB feedback on his members interests. O’Grady stated that news stories are about conflict and union organizing drives are full of conflict. Unions should pitch their stories to reporters that way.. 

Nancy Walcott (CAB member asked for clarification on “the right to work states”? Bigler noted that this is a misnomer as this has nothing to do with right to work. Historically to get the NLRA past, help was needed from 14 states. Those states signed on when the union security clause was outlawed in these states.  This meant that unions are not funded.

Jill Rappaport (WNYC listener): I am 100% pro-union, but I’ve seen cases where union members (often construction workers) are bussed in to talk up the development projects. The downside, these real estate projects destroy neighborhoods. Couldn’t WNYC cover more Albany issues? Villasante explained that a construction worker wants to work in construction, so they will have an interest to support it. He suggested that it would be better to shift conversation to what kind of construction should be done.

CAB member: Does WNYC have a dedicated labor reporter? O’Grady noted that they did not, but they did recently identify the beats that are not being covered, and labor should be on this list. The challenge for coverage by WNYC, particularly labor issues and the issues on both sides, is that labor issues are framed within that historical context, yet the nature of work has changed.  The new generation of organizing is with the profession track jobs, and how is this group reached. O’Grady noted that in the 1960s WNYC has a weekly program on labor, hosted by Richard Patter. 

Dr. Fred Friedland (former CAB member) paid tribute to Chair Gerolimatos’ excellent work over the past two years



Minutes from the May 15, 2019 CAB meeting were approved.  All present were invited to share in pizza party commemorating last CAB meeting of the 2018-19 season.




Monday, September 23, 2019

Meeting: 6:30 PM, The Greene Space, 44 Charlton Street, New York (Google map)


CAB MEMBERS (ALPHABETICALLY) (italics = not present)

Anita Aboulafia


Stan Ince (excused)

Michaela Balderston (resigned)


Jane Tillman Irving 

Chad Bascombe (resigned)


Erica Johnson, Vice-chair

Marlene Birnbaum (excused)


Peter Kentros (excused)

Donna Blank (excused)


Lisa Nearier

Michael Brown


Samantha "Sam" Pedreiro (resigned)

Liz Buffa


Curry Sloan  

Carole Chervin


David N. Sztyk (resigned) 

Grace Clarke 


Kathryn Tornelli, Vice-chair

Julia D. Fields 


Nancy Walcott 

Barbara Gerolimatos, Chair


Adam Wasserman (resigned) 

Alex Hu 


Jacob Wojnas, Vice-chair 


   Other:   25 Members of the Public; Mary White, MD, BoT Liaison