By Jena Ardell
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The 2400 ABC television technical workers who were locked out of their jobs after striking over health benefits two weeks ago have lots of support from the news-making crowd. Peter Jennings sends coffee and doughnuts out to the West 66th Street picket line. And Al Gore, Chuck Schumer, and assorted other Democrats have canceled network interviews, prompting one union representative to suggest that the Sunday talk show This Week, which has had only Republican guests since the strike, should be renamed This Week With Some Republicans Who Will Still Talk to Us. Meanwhile, the folks at a nearby Barnes & Noble have been letting workers use their bathrooms. UPS and Airborne drivers have refused to make any deliveries to ABC. And Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Bennett, and even Adam Sandler have nixed scheduled appearances on ABC talk shows.
All of which is not to say that anyone the union members, their backers, or ABC spokespeople, for that matter has a firm grasp on the issues behind the lockout. ABC and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, which represents videotape editors, camerapeople, and other technical workers, have been trying to hammer out a new contract for nearly two years. Both sides agree that negotiations have been tense throughout. And no one contests that ABC locked out NABET members across the country after the wildcat strike on November 2. But there the consensus ends.
ABC, which is owned by Disney, has been trying to persuade NABET members to join Disney's Signature managed-care plan. The union has resisted, claiming it doesn't have enough information to make that decision. It has asked ABC for the exact prices of specific medical procedures under the Disney plan, so that its members who would be responsible for anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of their health costs will know how much they would have to pay. But union leaders say the network has refused to provide the requested details.
Inside ABC headquarters, however, the NABET strike story line has a different twist. "They just wanted to strike," says ABC spokesperson Julie Hoover, who was unclear herself on details of the contested health plan. When first asked, Hoover said understanding the relationship between the Disney plan and the two independent companies it contracts with was "out of my league." (If the designated management spokesperson is confused by such details, it's easy to imagine how lost the rank and file must feel.) Hoover came back with more information and says ABC did give NABET some though not all of the material it requested, but the union's negotiators "wanted to strike more than they wanted the information."
Hoover's take is that the potential for disrupting the network on the planned day of the strike was far too great to pass up. It was the day before the elections, which also featured Monday Night Football and fell during the first week of sweeps. And in fact, the walkout has caused some glaring technical glitches, including a 10-minute blackout of Oprah and an election night beset by uneven audio levels and video troubles.
As Hoover tells it, health issues were really a "pretext" for the union to put across-the-board pressure on ABC at the bargaining table, where contract negotiations have been stuck on five points, including the number of "daily hires" without benefits the network can employ (ABC wants the number increased) and how much the company contributes to union members' pension plans (ABC wants the amount decreased, because, it says, the plans are already fully funded).
But NABET officials insist that the withholding of health benefit information is at the heart of the dispute. "This is a critical issue," says Jim Joyce, an executive board member of the New York local of NABET. "How can we make a determination without information that would let us determine what an individual's out-of-pocket expenses are?" And where there is information, Joyce says, it's not good. "We hear from tons of people already in the plan that it's terrible."
Indeed, Irv Conner, a retired, non-NABET ABC employee who is already covered by the new plan, sent all NABET members in New York a six-page memo "re: Life Under a Mickey Mouse Medical Plan," in which he details his disappointment with the new plan. Conner writes that the Disney plan is cheaper for ABC $432 cheaper per year in his case with the savings coming "right off the Company's bottom line and probably into bonuses for the 'Big Guys.' " Conner complains that since his switch from the managed-care plan NABET members are currently on, he has had to pay more for prescription drugs and medical care, especially when he goes to doctors outside the set network.
Without solid information on exactly what they can expect, workers pass along scary stories about the rumored failings of the Signature plan. Outside on the picket line on a rainy day last week, 61-year-old videotape editor Vinne DeLeo was panicking over the Disney plan's out-of-network reimbursement rate. DeLeo recently racked up more than $100,000 in bills for coronary bypass surgery. "My plan is paying 80 percent of that," says DeLeo. "Under the new plan, they'll cover maybe 20 percent."
Bob Smith, a studio field engineer who has diabetes, is also making dire predictions about the new health plan. Smith (who videotapes people entering the building, asking them to "show us your big scab smile") says he thinks the new Disney health plan will cost him more than $100 a month, while his current coverage costs him $20 a month. And technical director Michael Karman says he heard about someone who was reimbursed only $750 for a $7000 surgery under the new plan. "What is this plan?" asks Karman. "We want to see it in black and white."
Labor experts are keeping watch on NABET's health benefits dilemma, which some think may mark the beginning of another round of health struggles in the labor movement. While similar coverage disputes heated up when health costs were spiraling upward in the early '90s, they have largely faded into the background of union issues since managed care brought health costs down. But health costs are beginning to rise again lately. And labor leaders fear workers will bear the burden of additional costs.
Unfortunately, the meaty health care questions raised by the strike have now largely been lost within an unpredictable drama of technical rulings on labor practices. NABET has asked the National Labor Relations Board to evaluate its initial claim that ABC's withholding of information was an unfair labor practice. If the NLRB agrees, which could happen in days or weeks, then the strike would have been legal and ABC's lockout illegal. Still, it's unclear how the board's decision will change the situation. Even if the NLRB comes down on the union's side, the decision will have no actual impact on the matter of health benefits. And if the board rules in ABC's favor, workers could be out on the line indefinitely.
In the meantime, NABET leadership is hoping the prospect of missed soap operas will rouse the public's sympathy for the workers. Last week, the union issued a press release that alerts viewers that the special Thanksgiving day episodes of General Hospital and other daytime shows will be replaced with reruns! As NABET spokesperson Tom Donahue put it, "Viewers will get a turkey of a deal."