NCI v CWA Op-Ed Series
This is the third of a six-part series of articles (click for direct link to Part 1).
It’s the story of my yearlong experience as an employee of the National Captioning Institute (NCI), a live television caption provider. During that challenging year (which started in October of 2015), I participated in the attempts of some of my fellow NCI workers’ to bring in a union called the Communications Workers of America (CWA). This led to NCI dismissing me from my job for what CWA claimed was an unlawful reason, which then led to a court hearing in front of a federal judge where I was represented by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawyer.
What was at stake?
A judgment in our favor meant that NCI had unlawfully fired me because of my union involvement and I’d get my job back plus a public apology plus any back pay I was owed.
A judgment against us meant it was okay that NCI fired me because I was indeed a egregiously disloyal worker who didn’t deserve to keep his job.
Only time (a whole lot of time) would tell.
Part 3 – Bringing in the union but losing the job.
The CWA union gets involved in our struggle and I make the ‘big’ mistake for which NCI eventually fires me.
CALL THE UNION
By February of 2016, we three NCI voice writer trainees were still unable to achieve voice echoing scores high enough to justify initiating the IOA testing process. We were testing above a 96% accuracy level, but without more consistent practice we just couldn’t eliminate the dozen or so extra errors per newscast that were keeping us below the 97% goal.
We really were close, but apparently still not close enough to be IOA tested.
This meant we were all three stuck at starter trainee pay but doing billable work. Our supervisor had left that month to have her baby, so there was nobody directly overseeing our situation and as a result it got swept under the rug for a while.
We three were on our own.
It was really embarrassing to be so far behind and totally frustrating because we felt ripped off and abandoned.
If we had been able to voice echo train normally back in December instead of switching over to learning punch-back all day we felt we could have certainly passed our qualifying tests and been done with it.
The same way everyone else before us got to do it.
But instead those skills had softened from lack of use and the inability to consistently voice echo train became the major factor holding all three of us back. Meanwhile, our on-air work schedule was staying packed and my frustration with still being paid a lower wage was beginning to build.
And I definitely wasn’t the only voice writer suffering.
During breaks between newscasts, NCI voice writers who’d been there for years would share their own horror stories of their forever overloaded schedules and frozen pay scales and missed breaks.
Finally, after work conditions became unbearable and too many promises of better days had been broken, a few of the more experienced voice writers contacted the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union. They explained the situation and asked for one of their reps to meet with us.
The meeting finally took place in March of 2015.
WE NEED A CONTRACT
The Dallas voice writers (old and new) who were on duty floated in and out of the small office because everyone still had to cover whatever shows were theirs.
Virginia and California voice writers were also on the call.
The rep had already heard most of our work related grievances beforehand so he was able to address the situation clearly.
It came down to needing a contract.
He said that without a contract between the workers and NCI, management would forever be able to overload schedules, skip breaks, interrupt lunches and grossly underpay and there was literally nothing the workers could do about it except complain or quit.
The main purpose of the union was to create and bargain for the best possible contract. CWA couldn’t do that, though, until the workers took a vote and showed that a majority of them wanted it to happen.
The rep explained that the first step in getting a union in your workplace was to find out how people would vote. Until enough people said they’d be for a union, it wasn’t worth the risk to hold an official vote.
So a bunch of us began spreading the word.
A private Facebook group was set up for discussions.
Impromptu union-related conversations began taking place during breaks.
Eventually a phone number spreadsheet was created and we were each assigned a list of people to call and talk with about the possibility of a union.
Our group’s goal was to find out how many union yes’s, no’s and maybe’s there were.
Meanwhile, word of the union began filtering through the NCI ranks.
Since no supervisors could be involved, all information and discussions had to become secretive and done on the down low.
It didn’t matter, though, because there were plenty of people who couldn’t wait to tell their supervisors about what they’d heard about the union and who was involved.
In fact, we were certain that one of the ‘friends’ in our private Facebook group was a mole, a rat, but we had no idea who it was.
At one point, there was even a moment of semi-confrontation when my boss’s boss was on a visit to Dallas. During one particular break, she asked a group of us who were gathered what we were talking about.
One voice writer didn’t hesitate to be a smart ass and right out told her, “The union.”
She did NOT smile at that
because apparently, upper management was furious about CWA.
UPPER MANAGEMENT FIGHTS BACK
In fact, the COO of NCI quickly sent out an email to all the workers that made upper management’s negative stance on the union quite clear.
She wrote the exact arguments that our union rep had predicted, almost point by point:
- How dare this union try to insert itself into our family.
- Unions just want your dues and won’t do anything for you.
- They’re going to force you to strike and jeopardize your job.
- Of course you deserve more money and if only we had it we’d give it to you.
- Any problems you have, let’s talk and we can work them out.
- And so on…
Not long after that, someone from our group wrote an excellent response email and one of the organizers asked me if I’d sign it.
Thus far, the only run-in I’d had with management was the one negative in-studio phone call I had received from my boss’s boss.
Otherwise my record was completely clean – never been late, never missed a show, got along with everybody.
I knew that if I put my name on that email I’d be forever associated with this movement.
Was it worth it to kick the hornet’s nest and then write my name on the shoe?
You bet it was.
The nature of my problem solving personality along with my strong tendency to fight for fairness won out over my fear of losing this particular job.
My total frustration with how our training had been interrupted and how my legitimate concerns about that were either doubted or ignored by those ultimately in charge completely motivated me to step up and sign.
My name went on the bottom with nine other disgruntled voice writers and that made me officially and publicly part of the union group.
It was a professionally written rebuttal to all the untrue points made in management’s email:
- How dare this union try to insert itself into our family – actually, it was we who asked them to get involved and they agreed to help at our request.
- Unions just want your dues and won’t do anything for you – yes, they do collect dues, but the contract they bargain for normally more than covers that cost plus a lot more in benefits that aren’t directly monetary, like schedule limits and mandatory lunch and break times.
- They’re going to force you to strike and jeopardize your job – actually, strikes rarely happen and if they do it’s only because the members vote in favor of it.
- Of course you deserve more money and if only we had it we’d give it to you – this contract isn’t about getting more money, it’s about establishing a basic set of ground rules between NCI and its workers so that both sides feel protected from unfair or unlawful labor practices.
- Any problems you have, let’s talk and we can work them out – if that were true, these issues would have been dealt with when they were brought up years ago.
- And so on…
That, however, was not the thing that got me fired.
MY ‘BIG MISTAKE’…WELL, SORT OF
The mistake I made seems a little naive in retrospect, but I’m not sure I would do it too much differently even knowing what I know now.
The incident took place in April 2016 on a Thursday, my day off, after a trip with my family to the Dallas zoo where we’re members.
My friend (the smart ass who earlier had flat out told my boss’s boss that we were discussing the union) had gone with us. He had since quit his NCI job but had remained my good friend and stayed curious about the union.
As soon as we all returned home from the zoo, I remembered that I was supposed to call in for a quick work meeting that was taking place so I dialed the number and put the muted phone on speakerphone.
My friend was in the room and could hear the speakerphone meeting (as could my wife and kids) and without me knowing he texted his old NCI supervisor about what he’d heard.
The next day my boss’s boss called me in-studio and completely chewed me out for letting a non-employee listen in on a company meeting.
I didn’t deny it, but explained to her that it had happened after our zoo visit and that it was not done maliciously.
I was simply new to the corporate world and it hadn’t occurred to me that it was a big deal, especially since no one at the meeting had mentioned a word about keeping it private.
In retrospect, I could see that it was a mistake on my part and I took full responsibility and apologized.
She ignored all that and told me this was considered an ‘egregious breach of loyalty’ and that it was my ‘final warning’.
Meaning if anything else like it ever happened again I’d be immediately terminated.
It seemed odd to me (as it did to the federal judge at the May 2017 hearing) that this situation hadn’t been handled by my direct supervisor and with a little more latitude given my squeaky-clean work record.
When I told the union rep about it, he suspected they were setting me up for the kill.
NCI DALLAS NO MORE
In the meantime, NCI had decided to close their Dallas office for financial reasons. They let all the affected voice writers know that they could ‘re-apply’ for their job if they were okay with working from their homes or relocating at their own expense to Virginia or California.
It made all of us (including the federal judge at the eventual May 2017 hearing) suspicious as to why any company would go through all of that instead of just reassigning their workers.
At that point I had already passed my IOA tests thanks to the incredible help I received from a temporary supervisor who had truly stepped up while my original boss was having her baby.
She went above and beyond (as so many NCI workers tend to do), and I’m certain that without her help and time I never could have passed those tests.
Thank you again for that, funky lady.
So with IOA status I wasn’t really worried that I wouldn’t be allowed to work from home. I filled out the re-application like everyone else and didn’t think about it again for another month.
Then the day came that we were all supposed to find out if we’d been ‘re-hired’.
All my friends, including the other trainees, began receiving their acceptance emails throughout the day. When it was about a half hour before I was scheduled to leave, I asked my boss if she knew why I hadn’t received my notice yet and she seemed genuinely confused.
By the time I walked from her office back to my studio I could hear my phone ringing.
It was my boss’s boss telling me I would not be rehired and my last day was in three weeks.
When I asked why, she told me it was because I’d been written up in the last six months along with being in the lowest worker quartile.
Except that as a rule all new employees are placed in the lowest worker quartile because they’re new and they contribute the least.
So my boss’s boss (not my direct supervisor) just told me that I was essentially being fired for letting my friend overhear that work meeting.
When I directly asked her if this had anything to do with my involvement in the union, she denied it. She told me that, of course, I didn’t have to stay for the final three weeks, but if I quit I’d have to give up my unemployment benefits.
The union rep was livid when I told him that I’d been let go like that.
He called it a classic counter-move.
If even one person like me who’s associated with the union suddenly finds himself without their job, it goes a long way to scare off anyone else who might be on the fence about CWA.
He assured me that what NCI just did to me was completely unlawful and that it could be fought in a court of law.
We were about to do a lot of work to find out if that was true.
NEXT: Part 4 – Fear of the union & building a solid case.
While my union-provided legal team collected information and built up our case, those of us who wanted CWA to help us negotiate a contract tried to spread the word.
We soon discovered why even that basic task was becoming more difficult than ever.