HISTORY: The first 50 years of Local 1220

On the twelfth of June, 1939, the Chicago chapter of the Associated Broadcast Technicians Units [ABTU] of the IBEW held its first regular meeting. In Studio 10 of WBBM, the members-to-be were read a telegram from David Tracy, President of the International Organization [I.O.] of the IBEW (and soon to be Assistant Secretary of Labor), approving the “participation of the IBEW radio men in the ABTU.” Before this, broadcast engineers and operators organized by the IBEW had been in an “IT&R” group within the larger IBEW local, in this case local 134, but the International Organization had found that ‘it took a radio man to organize a radio man,’ so the ABTU was established as a semi-autonomous organization to facilitate the unionization of broadcast engineers.

The ABTU grew rapidly. First, of course, once the ABTU had the blessings of the I.O., broadcast engineers currently in Local 134 were encouraged to formally affiliate themselves with the new ABTU. More importantly, though, men flocked to the union in 1939, 1940, and 1941. There was a certain prestige to being a union man, since the ABTU set standards for its members, especially the “First ‘Phone”, a first-class radio and telephone engineers license. Local 1220 was systematic enough that in 1941 a “points” system was adopted to fairly evaluate candidates for membership, with a “passing” score. Those who hadn’t yet met the criteria for membership could, in the meantime, receive temporary “work permits” so that the lack of a first class license would not unfairly bar them from employment. (The entire system for judging applicants and granting work permits was dismantled after the Taft-Hartley laws went into effect.)

In the interests of good relations with employers the local never insisted on controlling the assignment of technicians to shops, and the local accepted as members applicants who had been recruited by the companies. At the same time, though, Local 1220 watched for openings in shops it represented. Whenever possible the local directed engineers and operators to jobs as they came available. Since many broadcast technicians in smaller shops expressed an interest in moving up to the larger stations, and the local knew what was available, the local directly helped its members with career advancement.

Unionization also brought better pay, more decent working conditions, and some protection from unfair treatment by employers. Basic benefits that are now taken for granted, such as overtime for work over 40 hours, overtime pay for work over 5 consecutive days, a lunch hour in the middle of the work period, recognition of a necessary travel time for travel to transmitters when the employees are assigned to more than one site, regular vacation, and so forth, each had to be fought for. For instance, some men were expected to travel long distances to work at two different transmitters with no allowance for the additional travel time required. Issues for negotiation also included vacation, sick leave, pensions, and overtime pay for work on holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s Day. Into the 1950s one broadcaster was still trying to argue that if Christmas fell on a Sunday the employer could just pay straight time if the Sunday was part of the engineer’s regular work week. The union had to file a grievance to stop the broadcaster. It is no wonder, then, that the ABTU attracted so many broadcast technicians.

The early days of the ABTU were also full of the excitement and heat of a rapidly organizing industry: no sooner was the ABTU organized than it had to deal with a lockout at WHIP in Hammond, Indiana. The management was dead set against an organized shop and continued to operate with two non-union operators in defiance of pickets; their names and home addresses were noted so everyone could know who they were. The lockout dragged on, however, and eventually the head of the Lake County [Ind.] Central Labor Union, together with a representative of President Tracy, met with the management of the Hammond-Calumet B.C. Co.; opposition vanished overnight. By the spring of 1940 there were 428 men in the midwest local of the ABTU, and it was expected that membership could swell to as many as 900 after all the IBEW members in Chicago had transferred to the ABTU.

There was, though, one moment of confusion in the very early days of the ABTU. Apparently the existence of the ABTU predated its formal affiliation with the IBEW; even afterwards for several years there was a separate ABTU Council and a separate International Representative. At the time of the early meetings there was some confusion as to just who was eligible to vote on offices, and for a little while there was some confusion on just who was Business Manager. The old Business Manager of the ABTU was not sure the elections were valid. Eventually the confusion was straightened out, the local continued to organize under a provisional set of by-laws and in May, 1940 requested a charter from the IBEW. In 1941 the Chicago organization received its formal charter as “Local 1220 of the A.B.T.U. of the I.B.E.W.”

The years of the Second World War are rather interesting in that war came less than a year after Local 1220 received its charter. On one hand, the intervention of the War Labor Board, wage stabilization and no-strike rules limited the activities of Local 1220 with respect to typical union activities. On the other hand, though, the same rules provided employers with a loose framework of expected wages and working conditions. In the meantime, radio technicians continued to come to the union asking to be represented by the ABTU of the IBEW.

Given the restrictions of the war, it is not surprising that a brief period of intense labor activity struck the broadcasters of the Midwest along with the rest of the nation once that war was over. The interesting thing about Local 1220 though is just how brief the quarrel was. In July 1945 there was discussion of strikes at eight stations, with only the provision that “WCFL be permitted to operate for three days . . . if the union is permitted adequate time on the air to present its side of the controversy. Motion defeated 34 to 13.” Instead the local decided to give all eight stations three days warning. By the next monthly meeting, however, everything seems to have been resolved to the satisfaction of the union.

By late 1947, though, the relative power of Local 1220 had begun to change. Suddenly the contract negotiations became difficult, and attorneys for the stations began to ask for extensions in order to examine the provisions of the Taft-Hartley laws. In the early 1950s one finds that suddenly some companies begin to refuse to negotiate and try to find ways to forestall the recognition of the union even after employees have asked to be represented. Organizing became more difficult.

As Local 1220 began to adjust to its new position under the Taft-Hartley laws, though, an unprecedented hiring boom was underway: television had come to town as a going commercial enterprise. First there was WBKB [later bought by CBS to become WBBM-TV] and soon thereafter WGN-TV went on the air. Dozens of engineers could be hired by a broadcaster in a single year. Most of the new employees up to 1950-51 were men who had gained their training during the war.

The period from 1950 to roughly 1967 was a fairly quiet one, in that Local 1220 had settled into a routine for handling negotiations and grievances. There was a year-long strike at WXFM near Harlem Avenue, one which broke out only shortly after Norm Rugen had been complemented for his work on the transmitter, but this was unusual. Behind the smooth surface, though, there was activity that let the radio and television broadcast engineers keep the union together in the long run. From the beginning, the local has shown a keen foresight into the technical developments in broadcasting, and acting on this foresight has permitted the broadcast engineers and operators to remain united.

Everyone who works with television, for instance, owes their IBEW affiliation to the vision of the early members of the IBEW. As early as the spring of 1940 the minutes of the monthly meeting note that there was considerable discussion of the importance of jurisdiction over commercial television. Zenith, of course, already had an experimental station in Chicago, so it may be that this is what the members of the ABTU were watching, since the minutes note in particular that the ABTU members at CBS-New York were the principal obstacles to gaining jurisdiction to commercial television. The question was whether IBEW or IATSE, the stage hands’ union, would obtain jurisdiction. Ultimately the matter was resolved in 1944, after the reports of several committees on television education and FM education, when Petrillo of the Musician’s union agreed to back IBEW in jurisdiction over television in exchange for IBEW giving the musicians jurisdiction over the playing of records at radio stations. (The use of live musicians was decreasing as stations switched to canned music, and this seemed to be a logical extension of the function of musicians.) Although the leadership of the IBEW radio broadcast engineers thought this to be a good deal, the regular memberships of Local 1220 heartily disapproved of the proposed agreement until the very month that IATSE formally claimed jurisdiction over television. Opposition to the deal immediately evaporated.

Similarly, everyone who works with videotape owes their place to a twelve-day strike against CBS in 1958, a strike that also seems to be the product of foresight on the part of the Radio and Television Broadcast Engineers. In 1953 H. Walter Thompson, the president of Local 1220, toured the Ampex plant to see what progress they were making in their experiments with videotape. By 1958 videotape was no longer over the horizon but at the doorstep, and IBEW requested that CBS grant jurisdiction over videotape to the union. CBS refused, and the union walked. Most newspapers reported the strike from the perspective of the company, which cried that the union simply was gouging the company for more money, but one woman working for the Chicago American went down to talk to the picketers and came back with the report that the pickets said they didn’t care if they didn’t make a dime on the deal: they wanted jurisdiction over videotape. Many of the technicians working with live television were afraid they would be forced out once videotape was in extensive use, and they wanted to be able to expand into a new area for employment. It is, of course, difficult to say for sure what the basis of the strike was, since the Chicago Tribune, Sun- Times, and Wall Street Journal mainly covered the story as a matter of how well the stations were getting along without their engineers, but it should be noted that the strike began on April 7 and continued without progress until, on April 17th [as reported in one sentence in the New York Times], CBS announced that there was no jurisdictional issue since as far as CBS was concerned the IBEW had jurisdiction over all videotape. On April 18th new contracts were in the hands of all the locals affected, a vote was arranged, and on the 19th of April the strike was over.

The period from 1968 to 1970 was an odd one, in that there was a sudden surge of new hires and therefore new members of Local 1220, but at the same time the companies began a new period of squabbling with the local. There were suddenly innumerable petty disputes arising from the companies trying to unilaterally change jurisdiction without changing the contract first. Then, in 1971, the engineers at KWGN in Denver were hit by an ultimatum from the management, demanding an open shop. The result was a lockout in Denver, pickets in Chicago, and a deeply divided shop. Contract negotiations with WGN were unusually difficult. Then, in 1972, CBS requested a nearly complete surrender of jurisdiction. Again Local 1220 was forced to go out on strike, this time for an extended period.

The mid-1970s saw another difficult change for Local 1220 as more and more radio stations decided they no longer needed engineers. Instead of having formats that required engineers, a large number of stations decided to go “combo”, meaning that the disc jockeys would take over almost all the responsibilities of the engineers; as a classical station went to “Soft Rock”, for example, the simultaneous switch to a combo operation could cut a ten-person staff down to three.

Not only did more broadcasters go combo, television stations cut back on the amount of local production, making for more cutbacks in the staff. Finally, the broadcasters began to hire fewer and fewer full-time employees, relying more heavily on temporary personnel and “per diems” who do not accrue seniority and have no benefits.

In all, then, the last fifteen to twenty years have been a challenge to Local 1220. At this time, though, the members of the local can look back with pride on the record of successes that the union has compiled. The union has a record of vision in acting so as to secure for its members the best possible working conditions for its members, and the best possible wages, while never risking the security and well-being of its members unnecessarily. The union only goes to war when it is pushed and its members would be hurt, but when it has to look out for its members, it is effective

Compiled by Will Kelley, on the 50th Anniversary of Local 1220.