WHQR follows WFAE’s lead to become second unionized public radio station in the Carolinas

By Caitlyn Yaede

In the last six months, the employees of two North Carolina public radio stations have decided to unionize. On May 15, the staff of Wilmington-based WHQR followed the lead of colleagues at WFAE to become the second NPR member station in the state to express interest in forming a union.

They’re joining a wave of local media organizations, both nationally and in the Carolinas, whose staffs have organized, including the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer and The Island Packet in Hilton Head, SC.

We Make WFAE, the union representing Charlotte’s NPR news source, was voluntarily recognized by company leadership on Dec. 1, making it the first public radio station to organize in the Carolinas.

Charlotte’s NPR news source WFAE has a newsroom staff of 32 and is a nonprofit radio station reaching more than 200,000 listeners each week in the Charlotte area.

WHQR staff announced their intention to form a union on May 15 and has since sent a letter to the station’s management. WHQR is Wilmington’s NPR news source, serving the Cape Fear region of Southeast North Carolina. With a staff of 21 including 12 hosts, WHQR went on air in 1984 and has been serving as a non-profit full-service radio station since.

Photo credit: Caroline DeVries under Creative Commons

The station’s organized staff made a spokesperson available for questions from CISLM on the condition of anonymity.

Rallying both news and non-news staff in the station, the group aims to help the WHQR develop in professional and sustainable ways, starting with wages. The spokesperson said rent has increased nearly 60% since 2017 in Wilmington, while wages have not kept pace. WFAE directly inspired WHQR’s unionization efforts, they said.

“I think there’s an assumption that if you work in nonprofit media, you generally have to accept less,” the spokesperson said. “And I don’t think you have to.”

WHQR Station Manager Kevin Crane declined to comment, citing the fact that employees were still in the early stages of organizing.

Meanwhile, in Charlotte, We Make WFAE is currently at the bargaining table, hoping to have more power over the direction of the company and equity in the workplace. A We Make WFAE spokesperson provided limited information to CISLM on background.

Public media unions take off

While news media organizing is increasing among outlets across the country, We Make WFAE is the first union to represent public media in the Southeast in the past five years, according to data compiled by CISLM Research Director Jessica Mahone.

We Make WFAE, like WHQR, is part of the SAG-AFTRA union, which represents more than 160,000 entertainment and media professionals. We Make WFAE is currently in the negotiation stage, and reporters, producers, hosts, digital staff and other content creators will negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, according to a press release from We Make WFAE.

More than 70% of WFAE employees have signed union authorization cards, well over the 50% plus 1 needed to establish the guild.

Maggie Russell Brown, Director of Organizing, East for SAG-AFTRA, says WFAE’s organizing was a historic win for the labor movement.

“When it comes to public media organizing, there’s been tremendous organizing just in the past several years,” she said. “It’s really reflective, I think, of journalists and content creators at media organizations to not only have a voice at the job when it comes to their own working conditions but also to protect the mission of public radio.”

Since 2017, six local media outlets have unionized in the Carolinas, according to the CISLM research report.

Bristow Marchant is vice chair of Contract Enforcement for The State News Guild. The State News Guild represents employees of The State, a daily newspaper based in Columbia, South Carolina. Marchant is a member of the union’s first unit council and says he has noticed an increased drive for unionization across the labor market, particularly in the news industry.

The We Make WFAE spokesperson said they were inspired by The Charlotte Observer News Guild, which went public in February 2022 and was soon after recognized by McClatchy. The guild’s first contract was ratified in December and will remain in effect for three years.

“People are looking to unionizing as a sort of security, in a way,” said Paige Masten, co-chair of the Observer News Guild and former member of the bargaining committee. “It’s a way to feel like they have a voice in kind of what happens to their jobs and their careers.” (Editor’s note: Masten was Yaede’s editor at The Daily Tar Heel.)

Research shows spread of local news unions

This desire to have a voice in a time of change was reiterated by multiple journalists interviewed by CISLM Project Manager Sarah Vassello in her 2022 report on the state of local media unions. The report looked at how many outlets have organized, been voluntarily recognized and successfully negotiated contracts with management. As part of this report, she looked into the publicly-available union contracts of local news outlets between Jan. 1, 2017, and Feb. 28, 2022.

Vassello found that 29% of local news unions have successfully negotiated a contract since forming in the past five years and that it took considerably longer to negotiate a contract than to be voluntarily recognized, with the average contract taking two years to negotiate. Further, as working conditions have grown more unstable, unionization is becoming more prevalent in local media. This is true even in regions where unions had little historical precedent.

Brown corroborates this perspective, sharing that she has also seen a rise in labor unions nationwide, citing over 50% of Americans that view unions favorably, according to the Pew Research Center.

“As a consequence of the unfortunate decline in local journalism, the void has been filled by public media in this way that workers see themselves as the real protectors of the stories in the communities they report on,” Brown said.

In August, the Pew Research Center reported that one in six journalists at news outlets in the U.S. are represented by a union. Forty-one percent say they would join a union if it was available to them.

Key legislation blocks collective bargaining

Both North Carolina and South Carolina are right-to-work states. Right to work means that unions can still form, but union membership is not a condition of employment and union dues can’t be automatically taken out of employee paychecks. Functionally, however, right-to-work laws have depressed rates of union membership and even wages, according to an August report by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Proponents of the legislation say it preserves freedom of association in the workplace.

There are currently 29 right-to-work states in the U.S. North Carolina ratified its right-to-work law in 1947.

Unions foster solidarity, give journalists a seat at the table

The State News Guild began organizing in 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. It has since won voluntary recognition and is under contract. “For us, it’s been a good exercise in solidarity with your colleagues,” Marchant said. “It’s something that pushes you to talk to each other more and talk more openly about issues in the workplace and how people are feeling.”

A spokesperson for WHQR said the prospect of being able to ask for specific things and create equity in the workplace is exciting.

“It’s so nice to get to know your coworkers better and to work together to make the place you love even better,” they said. “We love this station and that’s why we’re doing this.”