Were Radio Hosts Fired From Two of L.A.'s Popular FM Stations for Union Activity?
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 union activity at the station.
Felix Castillo says it brought tears to his eyes when he learned of the decision: On Sept. 13 the National Labor Relations Board found sufficient evidence to support charges that he and several of his Spanish-language radio colleagues were fired in retaliation for their union activity. The NLRB, the U.S. government agency that investigates unfair labor practices, likely will hear the case.
“To tell you the truth I cried a little bit,” says Castillo, a radio personality known as DJ Mr. Boro, who was an on-air sidekick at La Raza, including on the morning program El Vacilón de la Mañana.
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 when the on-air talent voted overwhelmingly to join the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
In response, the Spanish Broadcasting System, or SBS, the Miami-based Hispanic radio corporation that owns and operates the stations, allegedly refused to bargain in good faith and began intimidating employees as a result of their union activity, says Julie Gutman Dickinson, a partner in labor law firm Bush Gottlieb, who represents SAG-AFTRA in its complaint before the NLRB. Gutman Dickinson says she's seeking the reinstatement of the dismissed employees, with full back pay plus monetary damages, as well as a pledge from SBS to bargain in good faith with the union.
SBS representative Vladimir Gomez declined to comment on the NLRB decision. Gomez emailed L.A. Weekly a statement issued last week by the company in which chairman Raúl Alarcón calls the allegations of union-busting “totally false and malicious.” SBS operates 17 radio stations in the United States and Puerto Rico.
SBS' general counsel, Richard D. Lara, said in the same statement:
"SBS has provided witness testimony and thousands of documents to the NLRB directly contradicting the outlandish SAG-AFTRA allegations concerning a handful of employees at our two L.A.-based radio stations, and we fully expect to prevail against these spurious claims."
The NLRB is likely to issue a complaint in the coming weeks and set a date for a trial before an agency judge. Meanwhile, SAG-AFTRA has requested that the NLRB seek an injunction in federal court to have a judge reinstate the dismissed employees while awaiting the agency’s ruling.
Castillo says he's hopeful the NLRB’s decision will lead him to be reinstated and return to the airwaves at La Raza. He recalls that the station’s general manager called him out of the studio on March 24 and fired him while his program was live on the air. During the same afternoon shift, he says, the show’s producer and one of Castillo’s co-hosts also were fired. In all, he says, six employees of La Raza were fired the same afternoon.
Felix Castillo, aka DJ Mr. Boro, says he was fired from La Raza on March 8 while his radio program was on the air.
The firings were part of a monthlong purge that, former employees say, started on March 3, when 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.
Garza told the Weekly: “I was given no reason. They said they wanted to exercise their right to do it.”
On March 8, Marlene Quinto, a co-host of Castillo’s on El Vacilón de la Mañana, was fired. SAG-AFTRA claims Quinto also was unlawfully coerced into signing a severance package outside of the collective bargaining process. Quinto's complaint is still pending before the NLRB.
Castillo says that when he was being escorted out of the building by a security guard, it dawned on him what might be happening. “When I was walking to the parking lot, I realized they're doing this to the union people. It had to be that. There was no other common denominator among us. And we were the loudest. They were bullying us since day one.”
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Altogether, SBS fired 25 percent of the stations' workforce in March, according to a statement by SAG-AFTRA.
Castillo says he became a supporter of the union after management at La Raza canceled the $500 fees it paid performers to make personal appearances at car dealerships, supermarkets and other sponsors. He claims the station management pressured him to do as many as 25 unpaid personal appearances before he was fired.
“I was personally told to toe the company line,” he says. “They told me, ‘Show us you have a hunger to remain here.’”
Garza, a 17-year veteran of radio, says the union drive gathered steam in part because young on-air personalities with hit shows at the station allegedly were being paid less than minimum wage. “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.”
Castillo says that to make ends meet he is working as a DJ for private events. He says of himself and his wife: “We’re getting by.”
“It’s been a year of thinking I’m crazy, of thinking, ‘Are we wrong? Are we asking too much?’ The company has not taken us seriously. It makes you doubt yourself.”
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