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NABET Rejects ABC Contract

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The National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) has rejected the most recent contract offer by the ABC Television Network, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. The "no" vote represents a wide majority of the union's membership. It is the first major development in the protracted labor dispute since the ABC lock-out of NABET employees ended last month.

The NABET/ABC contract was sent to NABET members for a vote last month, and on Fri., Feb. 5, the count indicated that the union had rejected the network's latest offer.

There are approximately 2,400 members of NABET nationwide, with roughly 1,600 of them comprising the New York local chapter, where resistance to the contract remains strong. Of the 1,600 NABET members, some 1,400 are from a single unit‹engineers‹which rejected the contract.

NABET and ABC have been in contract negotiations for a total of 24 months and the union has been working without a contract at ABC since March, 1997. Last Nov. 2, NABET staged a one-day walkout at the network. ABC responded by locking-out 2,400 broadcast technicians nationwide. The ABC lock-out lasted 74 days, through the 1998 holiday season, and concluded Jan. 15 when both sides accepted a return to work agreement.

Despite the overall "no" vote, some NABET members have agreed to ratify the ABC contract. They will be covered by the new contract's applicable terms once the union has signed an ABC memo of agreement to that effect. The NABET units that have ratified the contract includes newswriters in Chicago and Los Angeles; New York and San Francisco traffic coordinators; New York publicists; Chicago telephone operators; as well as Los Angeles plant maintenance and Los Angeles radio program coordinators.

In a Feb. 5 letter to all ABC employees, ABC president Robert Iger outlined the company's position following NABET's vote. Iger's letter led with the news that seven of NABET's 12 bargaining units had voted to accept ABC's "Comprehensive Final Package Proposal."

An ABC source said that the company was seeking parity, meaning the same union contract that its direct competitors have.

"We are disappointed that engineering, New York desk assistants; San Francisco newswriters, New York couriers, and New York radio talent coordinators chose not to ratify the agreement," Iger's letter read.

Despite the end of the lock-out, both NABET and ABC are still juggling several things at once. NABET has just mailed its own election ballots and its president, Anthony Capitano, said that Gene Maxwell, his opponent in the race for NABET's presidential seat, "is making a good run."

Capitano told Back Stage the ballots in his race with Maxwell were mailed Mon. Feb 8. Often frank and direct, Capitano has been the subject of criticism both within ABC as well as with certain members of NABET who object to occasional flare ups, including his use of profanity at the negotiating table.

"I spoke to one member and he said, "Tony, you take it too personal,'" Capitano explained. "So I asked him, what does it mean to be "personal'? I told him it means you care‹and I care about you. The company doesn't care about you."

Under the terms of the return to work agreement, NABET had to ratify the final ABC contract proposal by Feb. 7 in order to be eligible for full 1999 vacation benefits. That deadline has now passed without union-wide contract ratification.

In Washington, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is reviewing a NABET appeal that will establish whether NABET's original one-day walk-out was an economic strike, or a labor action based on unfair practices on the part of ABC. NABET first filed its NLRB complaint (claiming unfair labor practices) at the start of the lock-out. Then, the NLRB ruled in favor of ABC. If the walk-out is deemed an economic strike on appeal, NABET members will not be eligible for lost pay. But, if the original one-day walk-out by NABET is deemed the result of unfair labor practices by ABC, NABET members would be eligible for lost wages.

On Feb. 12, ABC is scheduled to deliver its oral presentation in Washington, in connection with the NLRB appeal.

In an article in The New York Times (Sun., Feb. 7), Jodi Wilgoren reported on the NABET "no" vote and characterized the union's position as being weaker now than it was before the Nov. 2 walk-out. And, fuelling speculation that there is little if anything for the union to get from ABC, the network consistently reiterates that it has gone as far as it can go: "Our offer will not be improved upon," Iger said.

"I believe that reasonable people can come to a reasonable solution," Capitano suggested. "It means you may have to be creative and ask, "What is it you need. Not necessarily what you want, but what you need."

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