An NHRA production truck. Screenshot credit: NHRA/YouTube

The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) has recently let go of five members of their broadcast crew in retaliation for union activities, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) alleges in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint. IATSE has also filed for the NLRB to oversee a secret-ballot union representation election for 70 or so members of the NHRA broadcast crew. The effort, which crew members expect to succeed handily, has seen hard pushback from NHRA officials.

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For 15 years, ESPN produced and broadcast NHRA races, but last year the network and the racing organization mutually terminated that agreement a year before it was set to expire. The NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is now broadcast by Fox Sports, but is produced by the NHRA itself, and therefore isn’t subject to any of the blanket deals unions have with Fox Sports. The vast majority of those who produce the races—cameramen, audio technicians, video editors, etc.—aren’t NHRA employees, but operate under a variety of freelance contracts.

According to multiple sources, the focus of the unionization efforts isn’t necessarily better pay, but better benefits and safer and more humane working conditions. Workers allege that race days are poorly planned, often requiring overtime, and 10 or sometimes 12 hours without meals or bathroom breaks. They further allege that some work enough hours to qualify for health care benefits under the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate, yet aren’t given them.

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Perhaps more seriously, some members of the production crew believe there are very real safety concerns. Drag racing, which sees the cars surpass speeds of 330 MPH, can be highly dangerous. When ESPN was producing the sport, the cameras on scaffolds at the finish lines—1,000 or 1,320 feet depending upon the type of race—as well as at the end of the track were remotely operated. This was partially in response to the fatal crash of driver Scott Kalitta in 2008, when his flaming car went off the end of the track close to the camera position.

Under ESPN, according to production crew members, personnel weren’t supposed to be within 75 feet of racing cars. But remote operating systems are expensive, and the NHRA production involves live cameramen on the scaffolding, often closer than 75 feet. There are also live cameramen at the starting line, whereas ESPN transitioned to remotely operated cameras there, too, a few years back, after doing air quality tests of the racers’ exhaust.

The North Carolina Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Division confirms that that there is an open investigation into the NHRA for employee exposure. They told me they contacted the NHRA about the investigation on Sept. 16, which was the opening day of the NHRA’s Carolina Nationals at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The OSH spokesperson wouldn’t detail what the investigation entailed or whether any determination has been made, but said that investigations can take up to six months, though they typically take closer to six weeks.

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Concerns over working conditions led NHRA broadcast crew members to approach IATSE, a labor union that represents over 130,000 members of production crews for Hollywood movies, Broadway, and broadcast television. According to multiple sources, union cards have been collected from over 70 percent of broadcast crew members, signaling that the unionization effort is likely to succeed.

The NHRA has pushed against these efforts, holding meetings with broadcast crew members in an effort to convince them unionization is a bad idea. Earlier this week, NHRA VP of human resources Marleen Gurrola sent out a ham-fisted e-mail along these lines:

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NHRA TV Production employees:

As you know, the stagehands’ union has been trying desperately to get you to become their paying customers. Most recently the union filed a petition with the NLRB asking for a secret ballot election among a small group of NHRA TV Production employees.

The purpose of the election would be for this small group to decide whether or not all of you should be represented by the stagehands’ union and ultimately perhaps pay union dues in order for you to work at NHRA.

(The full e-mail can be found here.)

The NHRA’s pushback is a fairly standard employer response, and their basic arguments have been that unionization will drive up costs and alter the relationship between the NHRA and its broadcast crew members. But this misses the point, which is that broadcast crew members believe that any budget overruns have been caused by poor management and unrealistic original budget assumptions, and that they want a change in their relationship with the NHRA.

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About a month ago, broadcast crew members sent a letter to the NHRA board, as well as president Peter Clifford. In it, they wrote about their unhappiness with NHRA chief content officer Ken Adelson and his subordinates, blaming them for cost overruns and demanding Adelson’s firing:

There are many reasons for the crew’s unhappiness and the exorbitant costs of production, but, at the end of the day, it all boils down to leadership. Besides Mr. Adelson, three positions on a television crew have key leadership roles: the producer, director, and the operations manager. The three men Mr. Adelson hired for these roles don’t understand drag racing or how to produce it. Because of their incompetence, they have lost the respect of everyone working for them. Crewmembers, some who have been involved with the broadcast for twenty plus years, are thinking about not returning in 2017.

When contacted about the deterioration of the relationship between the NHRA and its broadcast crew, the NLRB filings, allegations of subpar safety standards, and the unionization efforts, the NHRA gave the following statement:

Obviously we’re aware of the union’s activity and all the legal proceedings, and have addressed all the issues thoroughly. The legal issues will be decided through the legal process. We believe a union will be bad for the employees and for the sport.

The first NLRB hearing between the two sides will take place next week, and the vote on unionization is expected to occur sometime later in November.

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UPDATE (4:38 p.m. ET): After publication, the NHRA reached out with an updated statement.

NHRA believes a direct relationship between employees is in their best interest as well as that of the sport. We continue to communicate with employees about third-party representation and their rights under the law.