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Univisión Faces Protests
Univisión is dealing with a barrage of protests in Puerto Rico from activists who charge the network with ''cultural imperialism'' and labor unions who want a contract.
BY CHRISTINA HOAG
May 25, 2005
Univisión Communications is in the middle of a nasty labor fight in Puerto Rico that's resulted in both sides filing federal charges against each other and a public campaign against the Spanish-language media giant that it termed "misinformation.''
The talks, which started in Nov. 2002 just as Univisión was taking over the programming at WLII-TV 11 in Caguas and repeater station WSUR-TV 9 in Ponce, have been at an impasse for the past five months while cases at the Federal Communications Commission and the National Labor Relations Board are under way.
Univisión filed a complaint earlier this year with the National Labor Relations Board charging the Union of Journalists, Graphic Artists and Related Occupations, known by its Spanish acronym UPAGRA, with reneging on more than a dozen points that it had previously agreed to in talks last year.
That came after UPAGRA filed a challenge with the FCC in January against the transfer of the license to the two stations to Univisión, charging Univisión with ''cultural imperialism'' with its Mexican programming. UPAGRA had also filed a labor complaint against Univisión, but it did not succeed.
While talks are off the table, UPAGRA is trying to ratchet up the pressure on Univisión. Leaders went on the road earlier this month to Univisión's stockholder meeting in Los Angeles and a Federal Communications Commission hearing in St. Louis to press their case.
At home, a related coalition of artists and intellectuals this month started staging a series of ''TV shows without TV'' in public parks with actors that lost their jobs when Univisión took over programming at the two stations in 2002.
The coalition, known as APAGA, the Spanish acronym for the Puerto Rican Alliance of Artists and Allied Groups, says that Univisión is eroding Puerto Rican culture by reducing the number of locally produced shows from about 50 to three, mandating that on-air personalities speak with a ''neutral'' accent, and depicting some news with a U.S. mainland, not Puerto Rican, perspective.
''They treat us like foreigners in our own country,'' said APAGA spokesman Luis Enrique Romero, an actor whose show was canceled by Univisión. ``We have been displaced. We are not a minority here, we are the majority.''
APAGA's allegations are ''absolute falsehoods,'' said Larry Sands, vice president and general manager of Univisión Puerto Rico.
Sands said that the station did cancel some local shows but replaced them with others to currently air about the same number of programs, has significantly expanded news coverage and has never mandated that any of its personnel alter their accents.
Two Puerto Rican-produced shows, Objetivo Fama and Sin Editar, have been so successful that they have aired on Univisión networks in the United States, he added.
Additionally, Teleprompter scripts prove that there is no anti-Puerto Rican bias in news and sports shows, he said.
''The union is looking to manufacture issues,'' said Michael Wortsman, co-president of Univisión's Television Station Group. "There weren't even 50 programs on the air when we came in.''
Univisión entered Puerto Rico three years ago via an agreement with Raycom Media to program its channels 11 and 9. Univisión is now exercising an option to buy the stations for $190 million.
Network executives said they started talks with UPAGRA for a three-year contract and by last year had whittled down points of contention to about half a dozen. The union, they said, then went back on a number of points that Univisión thought were finalized.
UPAGRA President Néstor Soto said preserving island jobs is the key issue.
While Univisión has agreed to only use union labor in contracted productions on the island, UPAGRA wants the network to commit to using UPAGRA labor even if some of the production is off the island.
Univisión says that would be prohibitively expensive.
The sides are also far apart on a provision that would give ''equally qualified'' union members preference over outsiders when filling job openings. Univisión says the stumbling block is the definition of ``qualified.''
Said Soto, ``Job security is fundamental for us.''
Two sessions with government mediators last fall proved fruitless, as did a closed-door hearing by a legislative committee.
Both Univisión and UPAGRA have reputations as tough negotiators.
UPAGRA's membership has voted to hold a strike, but Soto said that will be a measure of last resort. For now, supporters are staging protests and holding signs behind Univisión reporters doing live shots. Soto is sending a letter to President Ray Rodriguez requesting that talks restart.
But Univisión executives said they're not giving in on the remaining points. ''We've given them our best offer,'' said Wortsman. ``The ball is in their court.''
The controversy shows no sign of affecting Teleonce's ratings. According to Mediafax, a company that measures Puerto Rico's TV market, Univisión programming has catapulted the station from second or third to the No. 1 slot with a 36 percent audience share in April.
Teleonce cemented the top spot after it started airing the novelas produced by Televisa of Mexico that until recently had broadcast for about 25 years on the Telemundo affiliate, Mediafax said.