FRESNO MEDIA WORKERS FIGHT THE "MEXICAN WAGE"
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 -
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
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
"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
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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