Fresno Hunger Strikers Win a Contract at Univision
by David Bacon
FRESNO, CA (4/2/00) - After not eating for forty-three days, five workers and community supporters at KFTV Channel 21 finally swallowed a little fish soup Friday. In so doing they ended a fast that successfully made language discrimination in television a national issue, and ratified a union contract they said would take a big step in eradicating it.
"We really achieved something important here," said Martin Castellano, a master control technician at Fresno's Spanish-language television station and one of the hunger strikers. "I was beginning to lose strength after not eating for so long. I feel like a rock has been lifted from my shoulders."
Last May, workers at Channel 21 began organizing a union over complaints that they were paid much less than their counterparts in the English-language media. News anchors at Fresno's English-language stations can make $80,000 a year. Fermin Chavez made just over a third of that for the same job at Channel 21. Castellano, who has been with the station 10 years, made $21,500, while other local stations pay $30,000 and more for the same job.
"I feel that Univision has been discriminating against me because I do what they need to serve the fastest-growing media market in California - I speak Spanish," reporter Reina Cardenas declared angrily.
Workers say Univision can easily afford to pay more. The company's 1999 fourth quarter revenue hit $205 million, and netted $31 million. Its stock price more than doubled last year.
Allegations of pay discrimination were made even more bitter because KFTV management includes one of the nation's most prominent Latino political figures, and was represented in negotiations by a former national civil rights attorney. The station belongs to a large corporation, Univision, whose CEO is Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio. Cisneros was President Clinton's first secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and has been a longtime supporter of the United Farm Workers. In an era in which the Latino vote has become crucial to winning elections in many states, Cisneros packs a lot of political weight in the Democratic Party.
Facing the hunger strikers across the bargaining table was Vilma Martinez, a former civil rights lawyer who was executive director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund from 1973 to 1982. Telephone calls to Univision and the station seeking comment were not returned.
Lower wages for the Spanish-speaking is a hot civil rights issue in an era of anti-immigrant hostility. Although bilingual education became an untouchable issue in elections just two years ago, California's teachers are still paid an extra premium if they can speak Spanish as well as English, the same skill which earns less at Channel 21. Lower pay for Spanish touches a nerve for another, historical reason. It continues an age-old practice called the "Mexican wage."
For a century, until the civil rights movements of the sixties, Mexican workers in mines, railroads and factories were paid a special wage that was lower than their white counterparts doing the same work. The "Mexican wage" caused an armed uprising at the small Sonoran town of Cananea in 1906, in a famous battle that heralded the Mexican revolution.
Univision's wage scale provoked similar outrage among its workers, first inspiring them to vote for Local 51 of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians last May, and then to stop eating after more than 20 session of negotiations failed to produce a contract.
Two Channel 21 employees, Cardenas and Castellano, fasted for 43 days. They were joined by the negotiator for their union, Carrie Biggs-Adams, who works a regular job for NBC in LA in addition to helping with bargaining in Fresno, and two community supporters, Angel Noriega from the Committee of the Poor, and Tami Van Dyne, a staff member at the hotel and restaurant employees union.
"When I started this hunger strike, I thought Cisneros would talk to us, and it would just last a week," Cardenas says. "We were wrong about him. But I'm a very determined person. I felt my dignity and self-respect were on the line, and I wasn't going to give up."
According to the union, Univision has a reputation for hardball bargaining. When workers at San Francisco's Channel 14 organized a union for similar reasons three years ago, they spent a year in negotiations. One of the station's most-respected news reporters, Lupita Figueroa, was fired in the fight over the contract there.
Last week Univision finally made important concessions on the workers' demands, and the union agreed to a settlement. Chavez' salary rises to 37,000 a year, Castellano's to 26,500, and Cardenas gets a $3450 raise. Some employees receive as much as a 42% increase, in addition to 4% raises for each of the three years to come. The company also agreed to pay the raise retroactively to December 1 of last year.
In addition, Channel 21 management had made proposals workers viewed as an attempt to punish them for joining the union. One proposal demanded that Castellano work ten straight hours without a break, with no paid lunchtime. Another would have allowed the station unlimited use of free-lancers, which employees feared would be used to replace them.
Univision finally agreed to pay Castellano and master control technicians a half hour for lunch, even when they had to eat on the job. Freelancers become permanent employees after working 90 days in a year, and station employees have the right to report all stories within a 65 mile radius.
"We're still underpaid," Castellano explained, "and in the long run, the wages really need to come up, especially since we all do more than one job. But this contract gives us the foundation to stand on. We'll be back in future negotiations to eradicate the difference."
After ratifying the agreement, workers broke their fast in a religious ceremony at the encampment they had maintained in front of the station for weeks.
Biggs-Adams noted that the fast and community support had a big effect. "Advertisers were pulling out, and many community supporters refused to be interviewed on Channel 21," she said. Squads of community supporters followed remote news crews, and held up signs on camera supporting the hunger strikers whenever they attempted to film a segment.
While strikers noted the support of Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamente and supervisor Juan Aranbula, most other Latino politicians in the area remained silent throughout the dispute. "That made us very grateful for the grassroots community support we received, especially from the United Farm Workers and the Fresno Labor Community Alliance," Castellano said. "That's what gave us the strength to last this long. At a certain point, Univision realized that people were really beginning to hear our story, and the publicity hurt them a lot. I don't think they ever thought we would get this far."
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