CNN has agreed to pay $76 million in back pay to settle allegations that it violated federal labor law when it replaced hundreds of unionized broadcast technicians more than 15 years ago, the National Labor Relations Board said Friday.
The board said the settlement was the largest monetary remedy in its 84-year history and more than the amount the agency collects in a typical year.
The agreement ends a long-running dispute that erupted in 2003, when CNN terminated a contract with Team Video Services, which had provided audio and video services to the cable company’s New York and Washington bureaus.
CNN then hired new employees to perform the same work without recognizing or bargaining with the two unions that had represented the Team Video Services employees, the board said Friday.
“CNN sought to operate as a nonunion workplace,” the board said, and made clear to the workers that their prior employment with Team Video Services and union affiliation “disqualified them from employment.”
The agreement will benefit about 300 camera operators, sound technicians, studio technicians and broadcast engineers.
“After more than 15 years, this settlement agreement finally delivers justice for workers who experienced serious hardship in their lives due to CNN’s union-busting practices,” Charlie Braico, the president of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, said in a statement. “This incredible settlement in workers’ favor should send a very clear message to CNN and to other employers that union-busting is illegal and has consequences.”
CNN released a brief statement acknowledging the settlement.
“After more than a decade of litigation, negotiation and appeals we are pleased to have resolved a longstanding legal matter,” the statement said.
The agreement came just days before the broadcast employees’ union, which is part of the Communications Workers of America, had planned to picket outside the next Democratic presidential debate, which CNN is hosting on Tuesday at Drake University in Des Moines. The union said it had told CNN, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic candidates who had qualified for the debate of its plan to picket the event.
“We are grateful to Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez for his help ensuring that this debate will proceed without the disruption of a labor dispute,” Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America, said in a statement. “The Democratic presidential candidates demonstrated their commitment to working people by intending to honor the picket line.”
The case hinged partly on whether CNN could be considered a so-called joint employer of the Team Video Services workers, meaning that it had legal obligations to them under labor law even though it didn’t hire them directly. Companies that have relationships with contractors and franchisees can be considered joint employers of their workers if they exercise sufficient control over them.
The current standard for judging whether a company like CNN is a joint employer was set during the Obama administration and allows a company to be deemed a joint employer even if it exercises only indirect control over workers employed by a contractor, such as requiring the use of software that locks in scheduling practices. The current labor board is widely expected to narrow this standard in the coming weeks, which would make it harder to hold parent companies liable for labor law violations.
The Communications Workers of America accused CNN of waging such a long, protracted battle against the workers that several of them died before the dispute could be resolved.
An administrative law judge ruled in 2008 that CNN violated the National Labor Relations Act and that CNN was a joint employer with Team Video Services. But the union said CNN then filed more than 1,600 exceptions with the board.
In 2014, the board ordered CNN to bargain with the unions and provide back pay. But the union said CNN appealed the decision to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which upheld most of the board’s findings in 2017 and enforced its order that CNN cease and desist from refusing to recognize and bargain with the unions.
The court, however, remanded the board’s joint employer finding for further clarification, along with the issue of back pay for further consideration by the board.
The parties agreed to resolve their dispute through the board’s Alternative Dispute Resolution program.
Under the terms of the agreement, CNN will pay the $76 million to the board, which will make payments to the affected workers. The payments will compensate them for the protracted length of the case and the tax consequences from the size of the payouts, the union said, adding that it will withdraw all pending charges against CNN.
Peter B. Robb, the board’s general counsel, said that “the settlement demonstrates the board’s continued commitment to enforcing the law and ensuring employees who were treated unfairly obtain the monetary relief ordered by the board.”
Noam Scheiber contributed reporting.