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Workers at Philly’s public media station, WHYY, decide to unionize

More than 80 percent of the nearly 100 workers in their proposed bargaining unit have signed cards to join SAG-AFTRA, the WHYY union said.

Workers at WHYY have decided to unionize.
Workers at WHYY have decided to unionize.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Journalists and other employees at public media station WHYY have decided to unionize.

More than 80% of the nearly 100 radio and television workers in the proposed bargaining unit have signed cards to join SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents National Public Radio and many of its local member stations around the country, the WHYY union said.

On Wednesday, a delegation of WHYY workers delivered a petition to the station’s leadership, stating their intent to unionize and asking the leadership to voluntarily recognize the union — as opposed to requiring the workers to go through a National Labor Relations Board election, which takes longer and is riskier for those trying to form a union because of certain legal rules.

“WHYY has become a bastion of Philadelphia journalism at a time when local media institutions have collapsed across the country,” the petition reads. “Yet over and over, talented employees leave due to untenable working conditions. We want to be able to stay and build our careers at WHYY without sacrificing our well-being.”

The proposed bargaining unit includes reporters, producers at such shows as Fresh Air and Radio Times, and marketing staffers. It does not include managers.

In a statement, WHYY spokesperson Art Ellis said, “We respect the rights of our employees to engage in this process and look forward to discussing with them whether the most beneficial way to do this is through SAG-AFTRA." He added: “We are confident that all will continue to support our audience’s needs as we work through this process.”

WHYY is rare in the local news landscape in that it has grown in recent years, acquiring media brands such as Billy Penn and PlanPhilly and building out new programs such as the Pulse, a health show, and the Why, a news podcast and radio show.

WHYY CEO Bill Marrazzo’s high salary has come under fire from employees, especially as workers said they have not received raises. In 2018, he was paid $762,010, according to WHYY documents, down from the roughly $842,000 he received in 2016. Marrazzo’s compensation is well above that of his peers at comparable NPR affiliates, except for at WNYC. But, historically, WNYC has
more than twice the annual revenue of WHYY. In 2018, WHYY’s revenue totaled nearly $39 million, while WNYC’s was just over $97 million.

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The WHYY workers’ bid to unionize comes at a time when journalists across the country are forming unions, as the industry faces precarious finances and withstands relentless job cuts. In new media outlets such as BuzzFeed and Vox Media and newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Arizona Republic, workers have organized and often seen fierce pushback from managers. Last summer, Gannett, which owns the Arizona Republic, confiscated the cell phone of a reporter who was leading the union campaign. BuzzFeed management refused for four months to recognize the BuzzFeed union until workers walked out.