Most good cosmopolitan liberals are familiar with StoryCorps for the enlightening, heartwarming, and unexpected audio stories they present on NPR and elsewhere. Because the universe has a sense of humor, StoryCorps is now presenting something new: An anti-union campaign.
As a wave of unionization has swept through the media over the past two years, it has become de rigueur to see allegedly liberal news outlets twisting themselves in knots to explain why a union is actually a bad idea for them. When even Salon.com must struggle mightily to try to secure a union contract, it is abundantly clear that talk is cheap. Still, there is something unsettling about what is happening at StoryCorps. It’s like finding out that your favorite kindergarten teacher likes to torture cats.
StoryCorps employees say that their union organizing drive began in earnest late last year, and by the end of May this year, they had gathered enough union cards to approach management and ask that their union of more than 30 employees, organized with the Communication Workers of America, be recognized. The union’s mission statement lists a set of fairly nonthreatening goals: better workplace communication, fair pay, diversity, and, perhaps most notably, to “Honor the integrity of StoryCorps’ mission and core principles, internally and externally.” Two longtime StoryCorps employees involved in the union drive that I spoke to, Yosmay del Mazo and Haley Shaffer, both cited a desire to standardize basic things like job titles, severance pay, and layoff procedures, and to improve communication within the company and create formal channels for internal feedback as motivating factors.
In early June, shortly after the employees had requested union recognition, StoryCorps held its all-staff summit in Brooklyn. After the summit, employees say they were subjected to multiple “captive audience meetings” at which their employers lectured them on why a union was a bad idea—meetings that grew so heated that one of the bosses even started yelling at one point. “You could essentially play anti-union bingo” with the company’s rhetoric, del Mazo said. Shaffer characterized the company’s message as, “We’re pro-union—just not at StoryCorps,” and said that staffers were accused of being “entitled” for asking to organize. In an effort to cut down the number of workers who would be included in the union, the company forced them into a National Labor Relations Board hearing earlier this month, aimed at cutting the potential unit by more than half. The nascent union will have to settle that battle before moving on to what will surely be a bitterly contested election.
A PR representative for StoryCorps said that founder Dave Isay and CEO Robin Sparkman were unavailable to comment, but sent a statement on behalf of the company that read in part: “We believe that the core issues expressed by those employees hoping to unionize—a desire to have more of a say in organizational decision-making—are not meant to be resolved through collective bargaining. Ultimately, however, the decision on whether to unionize belongs to the staff, and we have moved forward in a process to allow them to evaluate and elect if a union is right for the organization. StoryCorps will abide by the results of the election and the choice of its employees.”
The entire StoryCorps enterprise, based on presenting the stories of regular people in their own words, can be thought of as a descendant of the work of the great writer and historian Studs Terkel, who used this technique most famously in his classic book “Working.” This connection was made explicit when Terkel himself made an appearance at the openings of the very first StoryCorps recording booth in Grand Central Station in 2003. Terkel spoke at that event about the importance of “celebrating the uncelebrated,” and credited Dave Isay with great things. Isay himself in turn celebrated Terkel in 2012, saying “May his voice and spirit continue to nourish and inspire us all for the next century and beyond.”
Studs Terkel was a lifelong labor and worker advocate who celebrated unions and decried the “day after day after day of the putting down of labor organizations, or not mentioning them, that has led to the children not knowing a thing about it.” His protege, Dave Isay, has built a company that says “We believe that the core issues expressed by those employees hoping to unionize—a desire to have more of a say in organizational decision-making—are not meant to be resolved through collective bargaining.” One can imagine what Studs’ response would be to that. But all is not hopeless, StoryCorps aficionados. It may be that the soul of the place is alive among the workers, if not the bosses.
“They’ve made a grave miscalculation,” Haley Shaffer said. “They’ve hired people who are committed to the values of this organization.”
Update: Shortly after this story was published, StoryCorps’ PR representative sent this additional statement:
StoryCorps is a non-profit organization whose mission is to create a culture of listening. We can and will always work to be better listeners ourselves. We also work hard each day to be responsive to our staff.
At the start of this process, those in favor of unionizing asked to be recognized without a vote. We want to ensure all eligible employees have the opportunity to participate in making this choice. This does not make StoryCorps anti-union.
Workers have not been forced to attend anti-union meetings. We held one informational briefing to outline for all staff the election process and timeline. This session was optional. It was open to staff who are eligible to organize, as well as managers, and offered at multiple times, to allow as many employees as possible to attend it.
We recognize the right of our staff to unionize and will abide by their decision.
According to multiple employees, the meetings held by the company in early June immediately after the request for union recognition were not optional. Haley Shaffer, the StoryCorps employee who attended the meetings, says that CEO Robin Sparkman explicitly referred to the meeting as a “captive audience meeting” in the meeting.
Update 2: We have obtained a copy of the email sent to employees advising them of the company’s anti-union meeting. The email, with bolding in the original text, reads: “Dear StoryCorps, As Robin mentioned this morning at the Summit, we will be having two sessions Tuesday afternoon to discuss the current process StoryCorps is engaged in with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Communication Workers of America. We’ll also review how unions work and StoryCorps’ management’s point of view on these issues... We’re limiting the number of staff at each session in order to ensure attendees have adequate time and space to ask questions. Please sign up for a session here [link]. If you can’t make one of these sessions, there will be a small session on Wednesday afternoon. Let us know if that’s the case for you and we will send you the details.”
Not only was the meeting not billed as “optional,” but employees were instructed to sign up for a make-up session if they were unable to make the original sessions.