Strolling through the lobby of the New York Hilton hotel here last week after DirecTV Group's annual meeting of shareholders, Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei - who was walking point - asked his boss, Liberty and DirecTV chairman John Malone, if he'd prefer another exit besides the front door of the hotel.
Maffei's concern: a handful of picketers targeting DirecTV were outside the establishment, carrying signs and handing out brochures that said "John Malone - Stop the Interference!"
A group of satellite installers who belong to Local 103 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers had come to protest alleged unfair labor practices by a DirecTV contractor, Multiband-owned DirecTECH.
Four union representatives attended the meeting and stated their case: They claim DirecTECH refuses to negotiate with them (they have been at it for about a year), have made false claims about pay and have refused to pay for overtime.
Both Malone and DirecTV CEO (for the moment) Chase Carey took note of the union members' frustration, but said they have little control over their contractors.
Carey said in the past year DirecTV has taken about 33% of its installation business in-house. Though the company "clearly has work to do in this area," he said, positive strides have been made.
Carey said the goal is to have happy employees - happy employees serve happy customers - and in instances where contractors violate the law, appropriate actions are taken.
While the in-meeting confrontation had the potential to get heated, the exchange actually was quite cordial, even with a hint of a raised voice toward the end.
One union rep even thanked Malone for chatting with him alongside the buffet table of donuts and bagels before the meeting began.
That union rep - Ray Rogers director of Corporate Campaign, a labor-union strategist - was so impressed by Malone and other DirecTV execs that he said the union will hold off on a planned June 9 launch of an anti-DirecTV Web site, www.stopsatellitesweatshops.org.
At the end of the meeting, Malone returned the praise. "You guys are the front lines," he said. "You make or break this company."
So, in making his way toward the Hilton entrance, Malone was feeling confident enough to face whatever music was waiting for him. When Maffei asked if he wanted to go through another entrance, Malone replied, "Nah, unless they're throwing paint."
They left through the front door, past a few scattered pickets.