CNN agreed to pay more than $70 million to settle a 15-year-old labor dispute with camera operators who accused the cable news company of canceling their contract to avoid dealing with the workers’ union, Bloomberg Law has learned.

The tentative agreement would put to bed a long-running dispute between CNN and a group of more than 200 video camera operators, broadcast engineers, and other technicians staffed by a separate video services company. Those workers, for the network’s Washington, D.C., and New York bureaus, say the company laid them off without bargaining with their union and refused to hire some of them back because of their union connections.

Representatives for CNN, the workers, and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians didn’t respond to Bloomberg Law’s requests for comment. The settlement remains tentative, pending approval by the National Labor Relations Board, according to sources familiar with the deal who discussed it on the condition of anonymity.

CNN has maintained throughout the case that it wasn’t required to collectively bargain with the operators and technicians because it wasn’t their “employer” under federal labor law. The workers were staffed through a contract with Team Video Services.

A federal appeals court in 2017 said CNN was the workers’ "successor” employer because it moved the camera operator work in house after killing the Team Video contract. Workers performing services under a series of prior contracts were unionized under the NABET banner for more than 20 years.

The case started in 2004, included an 82-day hearing, and spanned three presidential administrations. It’s often cited as an example of the shifts that the NLRB has seen in its legal interpretations based on which party controls the five-member board.

“It was an extremely lengthy proceeding both in terms of the hearings and the decision,” Wilma Liebman, a former Democratic member of the NLRB, told Bloomberg Law. “If they didn’t settle at this point, they would have had to go back and litigate a number of factual issues.”

‘Employer’ Questions

The case also highlighted the hotly contested question of whether certain companies can be tagged “joint employers” of each others’ workers based on staffing, franchise, and other contract relationships. The Republican-controlled labor board is moving to restrict joint employer liability, tightening an expansive approach established during the Obama administration.

Joint employment has become a marquee labor law question as companies shift to freelance and various other arrangements to avoid some of the responsibilities that come with being considered an employer. Companies say expanded liability makes them responsible for other businesses’ workers, while labor advocates argue it gives employees a seat at the table with the entity that’s actually pulling the strings.

The Obama board “took an overly broad approach” to joint employment, John Raudabaugh, a former Republican member of the NLRB, told Bloomberg Law. The board said a company could be considered a joint employer by reserving indirect control. That allows for liability based on hypothetical control, Raudabaugh said.

The federal appeals court said CNN was a successor to the previous union contracts, but it overturned an Obama board ruling that CNN was also the workers’ joint employer because it dictated certain terms and conditions and supervised their work. The three-judge panel included now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Judge Merrick Garland, whose nomination for the high court stalled in the Senate in 2016.

The NLRB is working on a new regulation to limit joint employer liability. An earlier effort to restrict joint employer liability was stalled in the face of conflict-of-interest concerns related to one board member’s previous work as a corporate attorney.