Exclusive: Chris Hayes attends secret union meeting with unhappy NBC workers

Workers urge MSNBC's top hosts to end silence about alleged fear campaign on their home turf. Ed Schultz demurs

Topics: Chris Hayes, Ed Schultz, Al Sharpton, Rachel Maddow, lawrence o'donnell, MSNBC, Peacock Productions, Labor, Union, Writers, law, nlrb, GOP, , , ,

Exclusive: Chris Hayes attends secret union meeting with unhappy NBC workersChris Hayes (Credit: AP/Virginia Sherwood/Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Amid workers alleging union-busting by an NBC Universal-owned company, MSNBC’s prime-time host Chris Hayes recently met privately with a group of them to hear their concerns, according to several people present at the meeting.

Hayes is one of five prime-time MSNBC hosts – along with Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton, Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz – whose support the Writers Guild of America–East is seeking in an ugly labor struggle with Peacock Productions, which is owned by NBC Universal and has produced programming for MSNBC. A petition posted by the AFL-CIO and hosted by MoveOn.org Civic Action asks the five hosts to “Please meet with these workers and take a public stand to support their right to organize” at Peacock Productions. None of the five has so far publicly addressed the issue.

Hayes, Maddow, Sharpton and O’Donnell did not comment in response to Monday inquiries (sent to MSNBC or personal email addresses, to Sharpton’s National Action Network, and to Random House, which published Maddow’s book; Random House referred the inquiry to MSNBC).

But, asked about the campaign, Schultz emailed Salon, “Moveon.org has never been an ally of Ed Schultz, why should I help you with a story? Give me a reason.” A follow-up email was not answered. (The email came from a personal address provided to Salon by people who have been in touch with him there; following a series of inquiries, an MSNBC spokesperson said, “I can’t confirm that e-mail address,” but declined to dispute that it belonged to Schultz.)

In apparent contrast to his colleagues, Hayes met with Peacock Productions workers in a private meeting with WGA-E staff at the union’s office, according to people who were in the room (Hayes did not respond to a Monday request to comment on that account). “We presented our case to Chris Hayes and he understood what we were dealing with …” Peacock Productions worker David Van Taylor told Salon. “I don’t know whether Chris Hayes will do anything in support of us – you know, of this campaign. I have no idea. But he listened and he heard us. And you know, I appreciate that he took the time to listen.”



WGA-E organizing director Justin Molito confirmed the meeting but said he could not provide further detail on the private sit-down. He said the union saw MSNBC’s prime-time hosts as “natural allies in the rights of employees that work in the same building as them, and for the same company as them.” Peacock Productions’ programming includes Investigation Discovery’s true-crime show “I’d Kill for You” and political documentaries for MSNBC.

Molito alleged that NBC Universal – owned by Comcast – was guilty of hypocrisy, treating Peacock Productions workers in a way that defied the values promoted on its cable channel, MSNBC: running “a textbook anti-union campaign that you would see at companies like Wal-Mart”; attempting “voter suppression” by preventing union election ballots from being counted; and exploiting the “right-wing extremist takeover in Congress” by mounting National Labor Relations Board stalling tactics abetted by recent Senate obstruction. An NBC spokesperson referred an inquiry regarding the Peacock Productions dispute to a colleague, who did not respond to a request. In an August statement provided to the LA Times, NBC said, “We believe that Peacock’s producers hold meaningful supervisory authority, which, according to Federal Labor Law, excludes them from voting.”

After nonfiction writers and producers set out to win a union last year, alleged Molito, the company responded with mandatory group meetings and one-on-one conversations in which managers pushed an anti-union line, and a spurious legal case that got the votes from a union election impounded (and thus left uncounted to date) by arguing many workers seeking union recognition were in fact supervisors and thus ineligible. “The idea that a group of workers that wants to organize, who actually does not have supervisory authority, should be ‘protected’ by disallowing them to vote is patently absurd,” said Molito.

“Some of it could be very intimidating,” said Van Taylor. He told Salon that managers “said that they were worried – both in public meetings and in private meetings – that they would be shut down if a union passed here.” Producer/writer Steve Rivo, who was working at Peacock at the time, said that in meetings managers “specifically referred to possible outcomes of a pro-union vote, one of which included the possibility that Comcast … might just simply dissolve Peacock … It was made very clear to the whole company that the group of people who were interested in joining the Writers Guild could actually bring down the whole company.”

Rivo, who last worked for Peacock in July, said that once his support for WGA-E was known, “my assignments were not as forthcoming as they were before.” Van Taylor echoed that allegation: “A pattern seemed to be developing where the people who had spoken up on behalf of the WGA-E were being last to be assigned to jobs or to have jobs.” Van Taylor said he and other openly pro-union workers heard that their co-workers were being criticized by management “just for like being friendly to us,” rather than shunning them for supporting the union.

Wilma Liebman, who chaired the National Labor Relations Board under President Obama, told Salon the cases she’s seen “would indicate that’s fairly common practice” for companies to compel employees to attend anti-union meetings when a union drive is afoot. In such situations, it’s generally illegal for companies to make explicit threats or punish workers for union activism, but legal for them to make dire “predictions” about what could befall them if they unionized. Liebman noted that the question of who counts under law as a “supervisor” who is excluded from collective bargaining rights “has vexed the board and representation issues from the beginning.”

Rivo, a 20-year veteran of the industry, said that like him, “many formerly independent documentary producers are now working as weekly wage workers in the nonfiction TV industry,” and thus seeking contracts that guarantee pay, health coverage and residuals. Van Taylor said he’d been spurred to get involved with the union by comparing the “sense of insecurity and lack of control” where he worked to the conditions for union members employed on fiction shows: “You can see that, you know, it’s possible to have a career as a freelance writer that’s not completely insecure and uncertain at all times.” In an e-mailed statement, AFL-CIO Organizing Department Director Elizabeth Bunn charged that Peacock Productions “proves that wage inequality is not limited to so-called low-skilled occupations.”

Given that “very positive” coverage of worker struggles is “part of their brand” at MSNBC, said Van Taylor, its hosts “should know what’s going on in their own company.” He added, “We would like the viewers of MSNBC to know that if they support workers’ rights, they should be supporting the workers at NBC.”

“People like Ed Schultz and Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow report frequently on and are quite supportive of the American labor movement,” emailed Rivo, “so we feel that it would be fitting for them to express support for their colleagues who are writing and producing shows on the same network, but who are being denied the opportunity to join a union.” Rivo was not in the meeting with Hayes.

Hayes’ and Schultz’s shows, and weekend host Melissa Harris-Perry’s, have been distinguished from their colleagues’ and competitors’ by much more frequent appearances from low-wage workers or union officials. In August, Hayes told Yes! Magazine that “Labor issues are getting more coverage than they’ve ever gotten before on cable news, first and foremost thanks to Ed Schultz, and then assisted by others of us who’ve taken up that mantle.”

If an MSNBC personality did choose to voice support for fellow Comcast/NBC workers during their time off-air, would federal law against anti-union retaliation offer them any protection from corporate pushback? Liebman noted that the answer would depend on whether they were hired through “an employment contract, or a contract for services,” whether they met one of the dozen criteria for being supervisors (excluded from protection), and whether they fell under the Supreme Court’s standard for “managerial” status (also excluded): those who “formulate and effectuate management policies by expressing and making operative the decisions of their employer.” In addition, said Liebman, “There have been some cases where the discharge of a supervisor has been held to be unlawful if it is intended to interfere with ongoing organizing efforts.” (Even in cases where workers are squarely covered by law, unions and their allies have long questioned current law’s efficacy at avenging or averting illegal retaliation.)

“I think any time workers are speaking out in favor of collective bargaining and speaking out in favor of the right of themselves and fellow employees, there is risk involved …” WGA-E’s Molito told Salon. “The degree of that risk, I think for an MSNBC host is likely less than the risk that’s already been taken by hundreds of workers in campaigns across the country.” He said the union would “love for them to speak publicly to whatever extent they’re comfortable with, but the call is really for them to show solidarity in a way that they can show solidarity, and in a way that they think is the most effective for them to do so.”

“If we lose unions, we lose the concept of solidarity itself,” Hayes wrote in a 2006 essay in In These Times, where he regularly covered labor before moving to the Nation and his current post at MSNBC. “And it’s hard to imagine we won’t become worse people for it … As the American right offers that redundant canard ‘moral values’ as its lodestar, the left should offer solidarity. Not retrograde brotherhood, or faith-specific fellowship, but something more robust and difficult and rewarding. The uplift of collective enterprise.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...