NABET and The Golden Age of Television

The year 2014 marks a memorable milestone for NABET-CWA: the 80th anniversary of our Union. Initially formed as a company union for radio technicians at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), NABET-CWA’s predecessor, the Association of Technical Employees (ATE), was created by NBC as a way to prevent its own workers from joining the IBEW, which was the first union to representradio technicians in 1926. But our Union soon grew into a vital and independent labor organization.

According to the ATE Journal, the predecessorto NABET News, the 500 NBC radio engineers and technicians, employed by NBC in New York, Washington, D.C., Schenectady,
NY, Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco, wanted to join together because “The employee tends to become a cog in a wheel, a number on a payroll, and an abstract unit of an efficient machine, rather than a human being with sympathies, emotions, and impulses. Under these conditions, mutual understanding and mutual cooperation can only successfully be brought
about by an active, fair and cooperative employee association. The ATE is the contact between you and your employer. If you do not regard it as such, you’re not just sitting in your armchair – you’ve fallen asleep in it.”

Ed Stolzenberger, who worked for NBC from 1933-1967, said NBC engineers at the time were making $37/week maximum with a 48-hour week minimum, six days a week, and no overtime. Split days were common, and you could work as much as 16 hours a day and get credit for eight, with no retirement plan, no life insurance, no penalties, and no seniority.

ATE was founded at a national convention on November 20, 1933 in Studio 8E at NBC’s New York headquarters. F.I. Wankel was elected ATE’s first national president,
and national dues were set at $5 a year.

The Union’s first labor contract with NBC was signed in 1934, providing wages of $175 to $260 a month for a 48-hour week, plus $1 extra for working on a holiday. At the time, sirloin steak went for .29 cents a pound, and the price of a man’s suit was $10.50.

ATE soon expanded to other radio networks, and by 1937, also included independent radio and television stations. In 1939, ATE achieved a union shop clause agreement with NBC.

The Union transformed into a new, independent union – the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians – in 1940. In 1943, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered NBC to divest some of its holdings. For nearly 20 years, NBC had dominated the radio industry with its Red and Blue Networks. NBC retained the Red Network, but sold the Blue network.

This spinoff would eventually lead to the formation of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). With that sale, NABET retained the right to represent the professional employees at ABC as well, expanding NABET’s representation into a second large network.

Other highlights during the 40’s included the achievement of important contract standards. For example, an agreement reached with NBC in 1941 was the first to include an eight-hour day and a 40-hour, five-day week with overtime pay at time and a half.

In addition, penalties were included for work on days off and turn-around of less than 10 hours. The contract also included jurisdiction provisions, job classifications and wage scales. But there was much work still to do. There was no seniority clause or grievance procedure yet, so the company could discharge anyone by merely providing two weeks’ notice.

In 1947, the lack of a seniority clause hit members working at NBC in New York City hard when six long-time engineers were suddenly and summarily fired. According to Stolzenberger’s account, “A cold chill was evident throughout the rank and file. The unspoken words were: ‘It could have been me!’. It became evident that salary without security was meaningless, and that Union representatives had to work full-time for the Union.” NABET elected its first full-time officers in 1949 and brought on other full-time staff shortly afterwards.

Two contract negotiations later, in 1950, NABET negotiated the first NBC agreement outlining a grievance procedure for discharges. That contract also included layoff protections based on a strict seniority basis.

By comparison with other industry unions, NABET, as an independent union, remained relatively small. As early as the 1950’s, NABET officials explored merging with other unions to become stronger. During this period, NABET considered merging with IBEW, IATSE, or CWA.

According to reports issued by the NABET Merger Committee, none of those potential partners were a perfect match. As a result, the leadership of NABET decided that our Union should remain independent.

That decision was partly based on the fact that in 1951, NABET decided to affiliate with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), in the midst of a jurisdictional dispute with IBEW. NABET was able to maintain its independence while at the same time gain all of the resources that the CIO had to offer, including protection from raids by other unions. Once the CIO gave NABET a charter to organize all broadcast industry employees, the Union changed its name to the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians.

In 1952, Canadian radio, television and film workers joined NABET, making our Union truly international.

Thirteen years later, in 1965, NABET expanded to include some workers in the film industry in Hollywood, New York City, and in Canada.

By 1969, NABET represented over 14,000 members, with network Locals and independent Locals spread throughout North America.

In 1978, NABET reorganized as a multinational union, giving Canadian NABET locals full autonomy. The Union continued to evolve, and in 1994, NABET merged with the Communications Workers of America to become NABET-CWA. This merger came a few years after both a difficult strike at NBC in 1987, and difficult negotiations at ABC in 1989. The merger efforts were led by NABET then-International President James P. Nolan, then-International Vice President John S. Clark, then-CWA President Morty Bahr, and then-CWA’s Director of Organizing Larry Cohen. Nolan would eventually retire shortly after the merger, and Clark succeeded to the Presidency of NABET-CWA. Cohen became CWA President in 2005, upon the retirement of Bahr.

Today, NABET-CWA represents about 8,600 workers who are organized into 30 separate locals.

Part two of this series will appear in the next edition of NABET News.