It is now 35 years since we created CNN, which was built as a non-union 24 hour news network. From long experience in the business, I had learned the difficulties of TV and film unions, which had been created in the glory days of Hollywood when cast and craft salaries were high. Union workers were entitled to the full benefits of upper class treatment. Leonard Goldenson, who was President of ABC when the network was struggling to succeed, was reported to have sat in the back of the airplane while his cameramen, soundmen and electricians rode in first class. I was sure that CNN would avoid that at all costs.
Nevertheless, in 2003, long after I had left the company (or the company had left me) I was being interviewed by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawyer about the firing of 300 CNN New York and Washington technicians who were members of NABET-CWA Local 11 and NABET-CWA Local 31. CNN had previously surrendered to the unions, and now they were trying to cut costs at the expense of the unions.
It has taken 12 years for the courts to decide that CNN was acting illegally and that it must rehire 100 of its former employees and pay the other 200 the money they lost as a result of their dismissal.
I had always used subcontractors to employ technicians that served my news needs both as the boss of the Independent Television News Association and at CNN. The subcontractors employed the nonunion techs. In the years following my departure from CNN, when Ted Turner had taken over the running of the company, subcontractors CNN employed were unionized and CNN was stuck with the high salaries and expensive working conditions their technicians received. Even as Turner was departing from CNN, his successors had decided they could fire their subcontractors and bring in new employees who would not be unionized. Shortly thereafter, the unions and the ex-employees appealed to the NLRB; the NLRB found for the unions and after a decade long struggle the courts have finally said the NLRB is right.
Now, even as Time Warner has ordered CNN to reduce labor costs and to improve profits, the company is faced with tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in payment for back wages.
Since 1982, CNN has a long history of lower ratings and journalistic errors (i.e. the Noriega case and the Agent Orange debacle) that have hurt both its reputation and its bottom line. A month ago, CNN fired or bought out dozens of employees as it struggled to maintain its profits. Now it faces the rehiring of a hundred former employees and additional payments to two hundred others. CNN now has a relatively new president with a new strategy that has yet to prove successful.
It's time for Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, Turner CEO John Martin, and CNN President Jeff Zucker, to find their way out of this mess, lest they face another buy-out threat from Rupert Murdoch or someone else while their stockholders are still reeling from CNN's latest screw-up.