Negotiations are set to resume this month between the union representing more than 2,100 L.A.-area TV production workers and Spanish-language stations KVEA (Channel 52) and KMEX (Channel 34).

The latest round of talks may prove more contentious because of a more activist leadership to Local 53 of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians/Communication Workers of America.

The new leadership, voted in last fall, has pledged to bring the contract at KVEA, a station acquired by NBC as part of its purchase of Telemundo Communications Corp., closer to parity with its contract at English-language cousin KNBC (Channel 4).

Election-related delays caused the KVEA contract, which expired Dec. 31, to be extended to April 30. Talks were set to begin Jan. 18.

"The membership felt there was a need for a change in direction," said Leroy Jackson Jr., newly elected president of the local and a technical operations worker at KMEX. "This group had been in power for almost a decade, so it's time for a new approach to our problems."

While the negotiations will focus on standard wage and benefit issues, they will also deal with the pay disparity between English- and Spanish-language stations.

A contract between NBC's local stations and the union pays the top production positions, including technical directors and videotape engineers, at least $42.10 per hour or $1,684.50 per week. The top production jobs at KVEA, including technical directors and post-production workers, pay $28 per hour, or $1,120 per week.

Despite the wider pay gap and the more vocal union leadership, Victor Franco, vice president of community affairs and media relations for Telemundo, called the tenor of the KVEA talks very positive.

"Both parties agreed to an extension to April 30, but we fully expect to reach an agreement before then," he said. "There is interest on both sides to reach a mutually beneficial agreement and I anticipate we'll do that."

The pay scale at Univision Communications Corp.'s KMEX is closer to its English-language counterparts. Top-tier production positions pay of $36.65 per hour, or $1,466 per 40-hour week.

But negotiations with KMEX have been going on since March, and Jackson said they are more heated than at KVEA.

"I attribute that to stubbornness," he said. "They could call me and settle this today if they wanted to, but they're just being stubborn."
Representatives of Univision and KMEX did not return calls.

The wage gap is directly related to the lower ad rates Spanish-language stations can command, said David Miller, an analyst at investment banking firm Sanders Morris Harris.

"Salaries in the broadcasting business are generally commensurate with the CPM (cost per thousand people reached by ads), the same as ad rates," Miller said. "The fact is the advertisers currently pay less for Spanish-language media."

While ad rates at Spanish-language stations are growing much faster than those at English-language stations, those outlets have higher absolute numbers, so the wage gap issue is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

"It won't happen until benchmark advertisers feel that the buying power of Hispanic audiences has achieved parity with the English-language audience," Miller said. "That won't happen for another decade."

Among adults 18-49, KMEX was the highest-rated L.A. station, regardless of language, in the May sweeps, according to Nielsen Media Research. KVEA ranked next-to-last overall in the same period.

Another big issue, Jackson said, will be the gradual installation of remote-control cameras and other equipment that could result in lost jobs. It is the same issue that led to a strike in 2000, when the union sought jurisdiction over jobs operating new digital production systems that KMEX ultimately installed in 2002.

Keith Hendriks, a robotics engineer at KTTV (Channel 11) who lost the union presidency to Jackson, has been a proponent of being more conciliatory a stance that he said got his unit a good deal in its latest contract.

"We're a union in their company," he said. "If we can help the company perform better, we profit from that, too. The new guys are going back to the old ways, and being confrontational, where you fight the company every inch of the way."

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