On Thursday, MSNBC executives held one of their regular quarterly virtual town hall meetings with their employees. A big part of the meeting focused on the cable news channel’s 25th anniversary, but during the town hall, the executives, including MSNBC president Rashida Jones, were asked about something much more current: the effort by hundreds of MSNBC staffers to form a union.
Audio of the meeting, which was obtained by Discourse Blog, shows the subtle, skillful, but nevertheless unmistakable ways that MSNBC’s corporate bosses appear to be trying to stop the union drive in its tracks.
The MSNBC staffers announced in June that they had formed a union with the Writers Guild of America East. (Disclosure: seven Discourse Blog staffers are members of the WGAE.) According to the WGAE, the bargaining unit contains 315 editorial staffers who work both on MSNBC’s television shows and on some of the news shows that air on NBC’s Peacock streaming service. (NBC News’ digital-side employees are already unionized.) In their letter announcing the drive, staffers said they were organizing for things like higher pay, pay equity, improved benefits, and diversity.
A majority of the group has already indicated its support for a union, and the organizing effort has received public backing from many of MSNBC’s top cable news stars. MSNBC’s top brass, however, is not so enthusiastic. Though the unit asked for voluntary recognition, MSNBC refused and instead demanded a National Labor Relations Board election—a step often taken by companies that are trying to buy time to torpedo a union drive. The NRLB election is set to kick off on July 20 and wrap up by August 17.
During the Q&A portion of the town hall meeting on Thursday, MSNBC executives were asked about how they thought the potential union might “impact the relationship between MSNBC employees and management.”
Three executives—MSNBC President Rashida Jones, senior VP of perspective/analysis programming Greg Kordick, and senior VP of news programming Dan Arnall—responded to the question. Their responses avoided overtly antagonistic anti-union language and often sounded generous towards the employees trying to unionize. But they managed to hit many of the familiar talking points that most managers wheel out when faced with a union vote: that the union is a potentially unwelcome third party; that individuals might get drowned out by the collective; that the company is a “family”; and that a union is not necessary to achieve the aims the workers are pushing for.
Jones, for example, said she would support the staffers no matter what, and called MSNBC a “family.” But she warned about the potential for less individual flexibility. From a transcript of the audio recording (emphasis mine throughout):
We’re committed to working together as a family, regardless of how this plays out. We want to make sure everyone understands, it’s your choice. We will support the decision wholeheartedly from the top down.
There may be some ways that some of the specific tactics of how we make decisions or how we operate will have to change just due to the nature of what that relationship is…[unionizing] is a scenario where there’s a little bit more flexibility for individuality…in some decisions versus there being a group that’s speaking on your behalf or, or weighing in on your behalf, but ultimately at the end of the day, we want to make sure we come out of this whole. We’re a unified organization.
Kordick, meanwhile, said that though he wasn’t “afraid” of a union and “didn’t care what the final result” of the vote was, having a union would not be “easy” for workers, who, he said, would be managing themselves. From a transcript of the audio, again:
Having a union here means you’re literally raising your hand to manage yourselves. It’s not easy…it’s really important to know how you are talking to each other because as a manager, um, I don’t get to pick and choose who I like and who I get to manage.
Are you going to include the people right now that [are] like, I don’t want any part of this, and then there’s a union and they’re being represented? Are you going to include those voices? Those are really hard things to figure out. And I think if we do have one, they’re all things you will figure out, but it’s just, it’s important to how the process goes.
Kordick also lamented that staffers had not approached executives with their grievances before organizing, since, he said, they all shared the same goals. He added that even if a union vote failed, the staffers could still make progress on their aims:
I know we can’t make this personal at all because these conversations were happening before any of us had our jobs really but, um, we’re all approachable. So I would’ve loved to have known what’s the list of things you wanted to improve, because if you had five things on your list, I’m sure three of them matched mine and four of them we could have gotten together on. So that’s a long way of saying at the end, if there isn’t a union, we’re still going to be coming to you, having conversations and figuring it out because your passion for wanting to make things better is the same passion for all of us, for wanting to make things better for on, on many different levels here.
Jones echoed Kordick’s comments, while invoking the specter of a third party being involved in conversations as opposed to a more open process without a union:
All the things that we’re talking about are things that, again, in our first almost six months…we’ve already started making strides on. And so again, part of this conversation is about what is the right method to get there? Is it working directly with the leadership team in the openness and transparency that I think we’ve all allowed and afforded, or is it having a, a separate group represent [their] interests to the lawyers who talked to us about those issues?
(As Jones and Kordick indicated, MSNBC has undergone a significant restructuring recently; Jones, Kordick, and Arnall all started in their current roles in February, though all of them had been serving in high-profile roles within the network.)
Arnall evoked his experience as a former union manager and member, and warned about individuals being misrepresented by the group. From the transcript of the audio again:
I’ve managed unionized employees before, I’ve managed non-unionized employees before. I’ve been a member of a union in my work as a journalist. So I’m not really that scared by it…I encourage people, like, talk to the people who work in this building that you know, who work on your shows, you know, all, they all have their own experience. It’s not necessarily a scary thing. I will say this, it does change the tools that we have to create.
Putting everybody together is certainly a powerful moment. It gives you that sense of kind of collectivity, but I don’t want to lose the sense that, like, the thing that this person needs is the same as everybody in this group. And we’ve worked so hard to meet those individual needs.
The MSNBC Union did not respond to a request for comment. MSNBC declined to comment. WGAE sent the following statement from Executive Director Lowell Peterson: “We look forward to the staff of MSNBC joining the Guild so they can have constructive negotiations with their employer. They have the support of thousands of Writers Guild members who have collective bargaining agreements in media, including with NBC and Peacock.”
According to one MSNBC staffer who attended the town hall, the union question was anonymously submitted through a Q&A feature in Microsoft Teams. The staffer, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the meeting, said the town hall was like a live broadcast, where anyone invited could watch, but only the executives could be seen on screen, and there was no way to gauge how many people were watching the stream.
The staffer said that, though about a dozen questions were submitted for the Q&A, mostly about work culture and returning to the office, management only answered around three to five questions, including the union-related question. When the question came up in the question queue, the staffer said it felt “deflating,” and felt certain management would choose to answer it.
“Going in I figured they were not going to give up an opportunity to spread their anti-union talking points. They had the entire company, sort of, there. It felt a little gauche, frankly, to do it when it was supposed to be a celebration of the 25th anniversary. So I was not surprised, but it still felt kind of gross,” the staffer told Discourse Blog. “They had what was supposed to be a nice moment where they played pictures in the background of ‘this person started hosting on this day, and this person started hosting on this day’ — the celebration of the company. And then it was like, ‘Oh, but, I don’t know about this union thing, guys!'”
The staffer said that the friendly tone from Jones, Kordick, and Arnall was familiar, a tenor that MSNBC management had generally taken on when talking about the union to employees. They said they’ve witnessed senior management join editorial calls to “check in” and see if employees had questions about the union and what unionizing would mean for employees.
Last month, the Daily Beast reported similar comments from Arnall just one day after MSNBC employees asked for voluntary recognition of the union. Specifically, Arnall spoke to staff about “possible negative implications,” the Daily Beast reported, saying that dues and fees would discourage people who could diversify the MSNBC staff from applying to entry-level positions.
“It’s kind of a shame that they used what could have been a nice moment to sort of spread these subtly anti-union talking points,” the staffer who attended the town hall said, “but I’m looking forward to the vote, and we’re going to win.”