The air-conditioning and maintenance workers in Burbank who are blocking nearly 2,800 other members of the National Assn. of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians from returning to work at NBC weren't apologizing Tuesday for sending the strike into its 17th week.
"We simply went along with our union leadership here on the West Coast and rejected a bad contract," said Vernon Ashcraft, a member of the air-conditioning and maintenance unit in Burbank that is one of the 14 separate groups of NBC employees that NABET represents.
"I don't want to hold anybody out of work, but most of the guys from the other units that called me have said, 'Go for it.' They're congratulating us for standing up to the company."
On Monday, 12 of NABET's 14 units voted to approve NBC's contract proposals and return to work immediately. But according to union policy, all units must approve their individual contracts before the strike can end.
The air-conditioning unit here voted 11-8 against the contract while the unit representing couriers in Chicago turned down their contract by a vote of 17-1.
"I don't look at it as a small or large unit holding things up," said Lester Gregory, an air-conditioning mechanic at NBC's Burbank facility. "I look at it as a body that works for NBC. We have to be treated equally when it comes to negotiating a contract."
"The other units were out on the street for more than 113 days for nothing," Ashcraft said. "But we are upholding the principle that we all went on strike for. We're getting what we thought was right. I just hate to see my brothers on the West Coast forced into taking a bad contract that they didn't want."
After NABET announced the results of the membership vote Monday, members of the dissident unit in Burbank were optimistic that they would finally be able to bargain from a position of strength. Before the contract vote, a unit spokesman said, NBC ignored the small unit--even laughed at its contract proposals. Now, he reasoned, the company would be forced to deal with the unit's demands for higher wages and job security in order to get the bulk of its technicians back to work.
Tuesday morning, however, union officials met with NBC representatives for half an hour to discuss the situation and reported that the company refused to negotiate. The air conditioning unit withdrew to put its proposals in writing and planned to submit them to NBC Tuesday afternoon.
There did not appear to be any animosity toward the unit from other NABET members in Burbank.
"I think guys like that (the air conditioning and maintenance workers) are extremely smart," said Dave Cone, a member of NABET's engineering unit in Burbank. "This is the only chance a small group like that has of getting anything. If I were the company and I wanted my 2,800 people back, I'd give them anything they want. I just wish engineering was in the same position."
Local members of NABET's engineering unit said they were proud that the majority of the striking engineers in Burbank voted to reject NBC's contract proposal, despite the fact that their fellow engineers in New York, who make up the largest segment of the union, voted overwhelmingly to accept it.
"We know we have to go back to work under this contract," said Carrie Biggs-Adams, president of NABET Local 53 in Burbank. "But at least we can hold our heads high."
However, the prospect of returning to work after the long and bitter strike was not something that many local union members seemed to relish.
Biggs-Adams said that some striking engineers have already come to her "sick" about returning to the network because they cannot accept working alongside "the scabs" that NBC has reserved the right to retain.
And while Cone, an audio-control engineer at NBC for 22 years, refused to predict that there will be fisticuffs in the plant, he said that he "will not fall over with a heart attack if fights do break out. I'm going to have to run around with a bucket of cold water to put out the fires."
Cone admitted that he would prefer never to return to NBC again. He said that under the new contract, he may have to take a cut in pay and a reduction in job function that would take the challenge and pride out of his work. He is also worried about the layoffs that NBC has promised, which he feels will eliminate the jobs of some of the younger engineers that work for him.
If he were young and single instead of 46 and the father of three young children, Cone said, he would not even consider going back.
But after more than 16 weeks, the strike has taken an enormous financial and emotional toll on all the union members, despite the fact that many of them have found part-time, free-lance work elsewhere.
Some have taken second mortgages on their homes, and Cone, as an example, said that if his creditors hadn't allowed him to stall payments on many of his bills, he would have gone bankrupt.
"I've learned about Maalox," he said. "After 22 years of being able to count on things, looking for new jobs and worrying about the bad deal we're getting (has) been quite stressful."