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By David Bacon
     FRESNO, CA (3/29/00) -- It's more than ironic that the reporters, technicians and anchors of Fresno's Spanish-language television are paid less than their English-language counterparts.  KFTV Channel 21 belongs to a huge media empire owned by some of Mexico's richest investors - Univision.
     But the pay at the station doesn't reflect the company's extensive resources.  A news anchor at Fresno's English-language stations can make $80,000 a year.  Fermin Chavez makes just over a third of that for the same job at Channel 21. Master controller Martin Castellano, who has been with the station 10 years, makes $21,500 a year, while at other local stations they make $30,000 and more.
     "I feel that Univision is discriminating against me because I do what they need to serve the fastest-growing media market in California - I speak Spanish," reporter Reina Cardenas declares angrily. 
     In California's schools, even in the post-bilingual education era, teachers earn a premium on top of their regular salary if they speak Spanish as well as English.  But being bilingual not only carries a penalty at Univision instead of a premium.  The lower wages also harken back to an unpleasant memory for Latino workers in the Southwest - the notorious Mexican wage. 
     For a century, until the civil rights movements of the sixties, Mexican workers in mines, railroads and factories were paid a special wage that was lower than their white counterparts doing the same work. In fact, the Mexican wage caused an armed uprising at the small Sonoran town of Cananea in 1906, in a famous battle that heralded the Mexican revolution.
     Univision's wage scale has provoked similar outrage among its workers, although they express it more peacefully.  First, the workers at Channel 21 organized a union, and in May of last year narrowly voted in favor of joining Local 51 of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians.  Then, after more than 20 session of negotiations failed to produce a contract they could accept, some of the station's employees took a more drastic step.  They stopped eating.
     The fast of two Channel 21 employees, Cardenas and Castellano, has been going on for over six weeks.  They've been joined by the negotiator for their union, Carrie Biggs-Adams, who works a regular job for NBC in LA in addition to helping with bargaining in Fresno.  Two community supporters have also taken the same step in solidarity - Angel Noriega from the Committee of the Poor, and Tami Van Dyne, a staff member at the hotel and restaurant employees union.
     Cardenas and her fellow workers took the step to try to send a message to Univision's CEO, Henry Cisneros.  He is the former mayor of San Antonio, was Clinton's first secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and is a longtime supporter of the United Farm Workers. In an era in which the Latino vote has become crucial to winning elections in many states, Cisneros packs a lot of political weight in the Democratic Party.
     When Cisneros announced plans to attend a business conference in Fresno, Cardenas and her coworkers launched their fast to get his attention.  They bought a table at the event, and stood at attention for forty-five minutes during his speech, which they hoped would make it impossible to ignore the crisis at Channel 21.  Their hopes were dashed when Cisneros made a run for his limousine right after the speech, avoiding any personal contact.
     "When I started this hunger strike, I thought he'd talk to us, and it would just last a week," Cardenas says.  "We were wrong about him.  But I'm a very determined person.  I feel my dignity and self-respect are on the line here, and I'm not going to give up."
     The Channel 21 battle pits these Latino media workers against another political heavyweight.  Heading negotiations for the company is Vilma Martinez, a former civil rights lawyer who was executive director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund from 1973 to 1982.  Telephone calls to Univision and to the station, seeking a response about the management position in negotiations, were not returned.
     According to the union, Univision has a reputation for hardball bargaining.  When workers at San Francisco's Channel 14 organized a union for similar reasons, they spent a year in negotiations.  One of the station's most-respected news reporters, Lupita Figueroa, was fired in the fight over the contract.
     At Channel 21, management has made proposals workers view as an attempt to punish them for joining the union.  One of them would have Castellano, the master controller, work ten straight hours without a break, eliminating his half-hour unpaid lunchtime.  Another proposal would allow the station unlimited use of free-lancers.  Employees fear they would be used to replace them.
     "We pointed out that working without breaks would be illegal under state law, and even filed a charge with the state labor commissioner. Martinez told us that we could legally agree to this in a union contract," Biggs-Adams says. 
     It was no surprise, therefore, that when management insisted that KFTV workers vote on its proposal, everyone voted against it.
     Fresno County Supervisor Juan Aranbula says he thinks Univision isn't intentionally making salaries a civil rights issue.  "They're just trying to keep as much money in their pocket as they can," he says. Univision' 19999 fourth quarter revenue hit $205 million, and netted $31 million.  The company's stock price more than doubled last year. Nevertheless, Aranbula says, "they should recognize the justice of what the workers are demanding.
     The hunger strike is bringing the dispute to a point of crisis, he says.  "I grew up in Delano, and I remember the effect Cesar Chavez' famous fast had on his health.  I always felt he died much too young because of it.  With the Channel 21 hunger strikers going six weeks now, something has to be done very quickly to resolve this."
     While Aranbula feels the urgency, other Fresno elected officials however, including state Assembly members Dean Flores and Sarah Reyes, have been silent.  They didn't return calls for this story.

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david bacon - labornet email            david bacon
internet:      1631 channing way
phone:          510.549.0291            berkeley, ca  94703


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