POLITICS
01/17/2020 13:05 EST

Unions Are Leveraging The Democratic Debates At The Bargaining Table

Presidential candidates have helped resolve two labor disputes by refusing to cross picket lines. Imagine if employers always felt this kind of heat.

KEREM YUCEL via Getty Images
After a 15-year legal fight, CNN settled a dispute with former employees just before the latest Democratic debate.

CNN settled a long and ugly dispute at the National Labor Relations Board last week, agreeing to pay $76 million to hundreds of unionized broadcast technicians who lost their jobs in 2003. In a country where legal remedies for breaking labor law tend to be weak, the surprisingly large pile of backpay made headlines.

But it was no coincidence that a 15-year legal battle happened to end right before CNN was slated to host the seventh debate of the 2020 Democratic primary season. If CNN didn’t resolve the case, officials at the workers’ union ― the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America (NABET-CWA) ― informed the Democratic National Committee that members would picket the event and they asked the presidential candidates to refuse to participate in the debate. Any candidate who did take part would essentially be a scab.

Four days before the Jan. 14 debate, CNN’s check was finally in the mail. 

“Without the political dynamics I am absolutely convinced we would be back in litigation,” said NABET-CWA President Charlie Braico. “CNN did everything they could to delay and postpone. They pulled every trick out of the bag. Without the political pressure of last week and this week, who knows how long this would have gone on.”

In an email, a CNN spokesperson said the network was “pleased to have resolved a longstanding legal matter,” but didn’t address the accusation that it intentionally stalled the case for years. 

The CNN settlement is one example of how unions are taking advantage of the Democrats’ crowded, progressive field and leveraging the presidential primaries to deliver for their members. In a contest where every candidate is jockeying aggressively for labor endorsements, the threat of a picket line has proved persuasive. It has given labor groups a pressure point to squeeze employers they feel have not been bargaining in good faith.

In December, the hospitality workers’ union Unite Here effectively wielded the threat of a picket at a debate site to secure a new contract for cafeteria employees at California’s Loyola Marymount University. Months earlier, the union had hit a wall bargaining with the school’s contractor, the food service giant Sodexo. Shortly after the picket threat, the union and Sodexo reached a deal.

The December debate had been moved to Loyola Marymount because of another labor dispute at the University of California, Los Angeles, where the debate’s sponsors, “PBS NewsHour” and Politico, had originally scheduled the event. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents workers in the public university system, had been boycotting UCLA over an outsourcing dispute, and the union asked candidates not to appear there.

Patrick Fallon / Reuters
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to McDonald's cooks and cashiers on a picket line in December. 

Of course, this tactic only works if prominent Democrats feel compelled to honor the picket line ― which, in turn, can quash an event and embarrass both the employer and the DNC. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been walking picket lines for decades, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been a close ally of labor during her years in Washington. But just about everyone from former Vice President Joe Biden to entrepreneur Andrew Yang has seemed willing and even eager to abide by the union requests. It may be one indicator of labor’s renewed political clout in the Democratic Party.

“I think Democrats finally, overall, are realizing that labor is very valuable and not an afterthought,” said Unite Here President D. Taylor. “When they actually do real, tangible things [like this], it is helpful. It’s not determinative, but it’s helpful.”

Rachel Sulkes, spokesperson for Unite Here Local 11, said the planned picket at Loyola Marymount grew into a far bigger deal than the union foresaw. The contract with Sodexo, covering about 150 workers, had expired in April last year, and the union had made little progress at the bargaining table. Sulkes said that once Sodexo canceled bargaining sessions and tried to push negotiations into 2020, the union decided to get more aggressive. 

The week before the debate, the union began reaching out to campaigns. Warren and Sanders quickly agreed they would not cross a picket line. 

“Then it just snowballed,” Sulkes said. 

At one point, she said, she was in a meeting with union leadership and had to keep interrupting to let them know that additional candidates had announced they were bailing on the debate. Union staffers were thrilled.

Sulkes said DNC Chair Tom Perez, who’s no stranger to mediating labor disputes, contacted them to find out why his debate was falling apart. Not long after it became clear the event was in jeopardy, the union and Sodexo reached a tentative agreement that will raise workers’ compensation by 25% over three years. Sulkes attributes the breakthrough to the pressure felt by Sodexo and the university. Even though Loyola Marymount wasn’t party to the workers’ contract, it risked public embarrassment as the contract holder with Sodexo.

“I think we took everybody by surprise, including ourselves,” Sulkes said of the picket threat’s success. “I’m glad to hear these candidates, that we’re putting them to work. They have to show they support workers. This is how the greater public learns. Most people didn’t even know the university had a union.”

The resolution at CNN was much longer in the making. 

Back in 2003, the network terminated its contract with Team Video Services, the company employing the unionized broadcast technicians, to bring the work in-house. Some of those technicians were hired directly by CNN as non-union workers, but many were not. Their union, NABET-CWA, argued that CNN was obligated to hire and negotiate with the fired workers, and that refusing to do so amounted to union-busting. An administrative law judge and the NLRB ruled in the workers’ favor.

Without the political pressure of last week and this week, who knows how long this would have gone on.Charlie Braico, president of NABET-CWA

But CNN managed to tie up the case for a decade and a half through appeals and mediation ― a long journey even by the standards of the NLRB and one that likely cost the network millions of dollars. Braico said the case dragged on for so long that roughly half a dozen of the workers have died. Many endured long spells of unemployment after being dropped by CNN. Some never returned to the broadcast industry, he said.

When CNN aired a Democratic presidential debate in Detroit last July, the union did not call for a boycott because it was in mediation with the network at the NLRB; to do so would have been considered bad faith. But once mediation ended without a resolution, the union was free to stir up trouble for the network’s next big debate.

“We had pretty much had it,” Braico said. “We looked at the fact that they were a broadcast sponsor and said, ‘Hey, if we put up a picket line, there’s probably a good chance the candidates will respect [it].’ As we got deeper into it, it started to come together.”

Responses from the candidates’ campaigns suggested the picket would torpedo the debate. 

“Suddenly, the settlement talks started to move,” Braico said.

The NLRB called the CNN settlement “the largest monetary remedy” in the agency’s 84-year history. The money will be divided up among more than 300 families, with the amounts varying from one to the next, mitigated by each workers’ earnings since CNN let them go. In the case of workers who’ve died, the money will go to their estates. Braico said the settlement will be “life-changing” for some.

It probably will be for Kathy McLaughlin, who’d worked at CNN as a camera technician for eight years before the Team Video Services contract was dropped. She then interviewed directly for a job with CNN but wasn’t hired, leading to years of erratic freelancing and a significant drop in income. McLaughlin, who’s still working in the industry today, said she always viewed the move by CNN as an effort to rid itself of the union and its contract. 

“In the back of my mind I always hoped there would be a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said of the case. “I got into debt a decade ago and this is going to help. ... I’m very proud of our union and all these years of fighting.” 

Even so, Braico said he and other union staffers haven’t exactly been celebrating. The fact that it took so much litigation and the near derailing of a presidential debate to get backpay for workers shows that the system isn’t working and that labor law is “broken,” he said. 

“For us to have to threaten to take the debate off the air ... it happened to work here, but our systems and our laws should be better,” Braico said.

Besides, Democratic presidential debates only come along every four or eight years.