A Bitter Dispute at Two of L.A.'s Most Popular FM Stations
Erika Garza, an on-air radio personality known as La Huerquilla, was terminated by La Raza 97.9 FM in March, which she attributes to her early support of the successful campaign to unionize staff at the popular Spanish-language station.
They don’t advertise it on the radio, but MEGA and La Raza, two of the city’s most popular FM stations, are entrenched in a bitter union dispute with their on-air talent. The stations are owned by the Spanish Broadcasting System, which operates 17 radio stations in the United States and Puerto Rico.
Last year, La Raza (KLAX/KXOL 97.9 FM) and MEGA (96.3 FM) became the first Spanish-language stations in the country to unionize. Harboring a host of grievances against management, staff members who produce the on-air programming voted overwhelmingly to join the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
The union claims the stations have been unlawfully retaliating against their members ever since. Eight members of the bargaining unit were terminated by SBS in March. Since the two parties started contract negotiations in mid-September, the union has filed six charges with the National Labor Relations Board for unfair labor practices:
—On March 3, Erika Garza, the on-air personality and afternoon host known to regular listeners as La Huerquilla, was terminated by La Raza during an on-air commercial break from her show.
—On March 8, MEGA terminated one of the morning show hosts of El Vacilón de la Mañana.
—On March 24, La Raza terminated six employees who held various on-air jobs at the station.
A confused listener, “Tammy,” posted to the homepage of El Vacilón de la Mañana asking for an explanation: "Buenos días,” it begins, “could you explain what happened with the morning program? What you have on there now really made me switch stations, and since I was a fan of the show I'd like an explanation.”
Another listener replied, “That makes two of us.”
The vast majority of the employees were union supporters, and management knew it, says Ana Calderon, national director for SAG-AFTRA and the chief negotiator for the union during the negotiations with SBS.
SBS representatives did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment for this story. H. Sanford Rudnick, a labor consultant who is representing SBS in negotiations for the collective bargaining agreement, told L.A. Weekly: “I have no comment on anything that you may ask, but I appreciate your calling very much.”
Garza says she was terminated in the middle of a show, called downstairs and let go while the prerecorded ads were playing in the studio.
“I was given no reason,” she says. “They said they wanted to exercise their right to do it.”
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Garza says she believes she was targeted for being an early and active supporter of the union. She's in her mid-30s and has been on the air for nearly 17 years; she says she became a supporter in part because of how she saw her younger co-workers being treated.
“I really felt it was my duty as a veteran on-air personality to at least look into SAG-AFTRA,” she says. “Some of my co-workers are 21 years old. [The station is] No. 1 in the market, and [the co-workers] aren’t making money and don’t have medical coverage or anything like that.”
She says unionizing wasn’t her idea, but a few co-workers convinced her early on and she started recruiting others. Employee discontent was so high that the successful drive to unionize was a lightning round completed in less than two months.
The union organizing meetings brought up a host of grievances, from unpaid overtime and lack of health benefits to denying meal breaks and bathroom access during live and remote events. The vote to unionize was 20-1.
Julie Gutman Dickinson, a partner in the labor law firm Bush Gottlieb, is representing SAG-AFTRA in its case before the NLRB against the SBS-owned stations. A litigator for the NLRB for 10 years, Gutman Dickinson calls the labor violations in the case “egregious.”
“This employer is violating the law with impunity in an effort to break the union,” she says.
Gutman Dickinson says SBS has approached the terminated employees about negotiating severance offers separate from the union, in violation of federal law. The union is demanding back pay and monetary damages.
Gutman Dickinson says she has asked the federal district court in L.A. to order SBS to reinstate the eight employees and bargain in good faith with the union. If the NLRB accepts the request, the eight workers could be reinstated by the end of the summer. If it is denied, resolution could take years.
SAG-AFTRA members will march in a union contingent during the May Day event on May 1. Among them will be employees recently terminated from La Raza and MEGA.
David White, national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, says many listeners of La Raza also will be marching in the May Day event. "We're going to let them know why their favorite DJs are off the air, because SBS hasn't come to the table yet."
Garza says, "I pray that the work we're doing now and the organizing efforts we're doing now benefit the future broadcasters at that station. I really do."
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