I asked striking KNBC cameraman Ernie Chacon what he wanted to tell the public.
"All I can do is let you feel what I'm feeling now," replied Chacon, an NBC employee for 23 of his 56 years. "NBC is a good organization. I don't hate anyone over there. But whenever something like this happens, they seem to grow long hair and fangs like a werewolf."
"I don't understand how one day you're OK with them and another day they're vindictive," said Chacon's wife, Giovanna Nigro-Chacon, who was once herself a part of NBC management.
Understanding doesn't characterize relations between NBC and the 2,800 members of the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET)--including about 200 at KNBC in Burbank--that have been on strike for 22 days over such issues as "daily hires" or temporary employees (see accompanying story by Jay Sharbutt). A new contract implemented by NBC allows up to 6% of its employees to be free-lancers.
One of the strikers' favorite lines is that "you can't spell greed without G.E.," referring to NBC's and KNBC's corporate parent. Another is that NBC stands for "Not Better, Cheaper." NBC's official position, meanwhile, is to play the good trouper and keep on smiling, as if having a third of its regular work force not working were making no difference.
In effect, Chacon is being told that his years as a skilled news technician--first as a soundman and for the last 11 years as a camera operator--don't matter, that he and others can be supplanted by relatively green fill-ins without muss or fuss.
"Bob Wright (NBC president) must be saying, 'Ernie Chacon or Joe Blow, what's the difference?"' Chacon said Friday in his Glendale house.
Chacon has been doing duty on NABET's "flying wedges," small commando-like squads of strikers who monitor radio scanners that direct KNBC replacement or scab crews to news stories. The "flying wedges" try to appear on camera themselves as a way to disrupt news coverage. They were all but grounded, though, by a recent Superior Court temporary restraining order banning strikers from interfering with news coverage.
"You know what bothers NBC about the flying wedge?" Chacon said. "When you go on strike, the people in management can view us as a faceless mass. But when I pop up in the camera, they are forced to see me as an individual."
Two NABET strikers were turned in by KNBC and cited for allegedly violating the ban by appearing on camera during a KNBC live news report in which one of them was visible picking his nose behind reporter Carla Aragon. Superior Court Judge Thomas C. Murphy has vowed to give the men three-year jail terms instead of fines if they're convicted, said NBC spokesman Jay Rodriguez.
"Jail for three years?" repeated Chacon, incredulously. "I just can't understand why NBC would do that to its own employees."
Chacon said that the NBC contract rejected by NABET would not have affected him much because he'd planned to retire within three years. "So I'm striking on principle," he said.
Life as a striker is "very lonely and a little depressing," he said. "Everyone's feeling this ennui. We're primed to work. I love my job. I love to go to work every day. I'm not there to sell soap. News is a calling. It's important. I look at what I do (on the screen) and get instant gratification. Whammo! Better than drugs. On the other hand, I know what I'm doing now is right. And the one bright spot is that I've formed a much closer bond with my co-workers."
Unlike some of his co-strikers, though, he hasn't been hit financially in a big way, said Chacon, who earned about $60,000 a year at KNBC, after extensive overtime. The Chacons have the look of affluence. Giovanna, a former KNBC executive producer, met him when she was a director and he was a soundman for an "NBC White Paper" being shot in Wyoming. She has produced some low budget films and documentaries in recent years and she also writes.
"We can last for awhile," Chacon said. "But not a lot of others can. We're basically blue-collar workers in this business."
Before the strike, Chacon and engineer/soundman Scott DeReimer were soldiers of the new broadcast technology, partners operating out of an NBC van from which they could transmit instant live pictures from any location. Sometimes they were assigned to rendezvous with reporters on stories, other times allowed to monitor their police scanner and pursue stories on their own.
"Scott and I have a very tight relationship," said Chacon, as if describing a police partnership. "He has to cover my back to make sure I don't fall down a manhole. I'd trust him with my life."