Workers charge Pacifica with union-busting
Adapted from Current, June 17, 1996
By Jacqueline Conciatore
The network that aims to promote peace and social justice, whose logo is an olive-branch, and whose paid holidays include International Workers' Day is being accused of busting its unions.
Pacifica Radio has hired a labor relations firm, the American Consulting Group (ACG), which the AFL-CIO says is a union buster. In addition, Pacifica has given its three unionized stations new labor contracts that shop stewards say would absolutely sap the bargaining units.
The union fight is just one more episode in the difficult, intense struggle that Pacifica National and its grassroots workforce have been waging since the five-station licensee--under the leadership of Executive Director Pat Scott--decided to become more serious about the business of broadcasting.
The roots of this larger conflict are perhaps best illustrated by a phrase, widely attributed to Scott from her days as manager of KPFA, Berkeley: "We're not gonna have any more of this hippie shit." Though she says she was referring to ratty office furniture, Scott has limited patience for the communal self-government style of Pacifica's past. The organization has since moved away from eclectic skeds in favor of strip programming, enforced its longtime ban on discussion of internal conflicts on the air, and, in a reversal of longstanding practice, told station advisory boards that National is in charge. As Pacifica follows the professionalization that has typified public radio in recent decades, diehards have criticized it for paying Scott a salary of $70,000.
Accomplishing its goals has meant wrenching control away from volunteers--many of whom have devoted decades to their stations and see volunteer participation as critical to the mission of community radio. They're not going gently, but the new labor contract proposed by Pacifica would make it harder for them to rage with any effect. The document removes volunteers from the bargaining units at KPFA and WBAI, New York. At KPFK, Los Angeles, unpaid staff aren't members of the unit, but there's a labor fight involving different issues. (The other two Pacifica stations--KPHT, Houston, and WPFW, Washington, D.C.--are not unionized.)
The labor folks base their charges of union-busting on this attempt to decertify unpaid staff, who comprise about 90 percent of unit members, and on the involvement of ACG.
The California-based ACG would not return Current's phone calls, or provide literature about its services. But a 1990 photocopied ACG document provided by former KPFK employee and union steward Lyn Gerry is titled "Understanding and Defeating the Union Health Care Organizer." Much of it seems innocuous--analysis of unions' organizing strategies and advice about keeping workers contented. It also says: "Our firm has been involved in more than 700 union elections. . . We've been involved in at least three times that many union efforts that were neutralized. . . "
Valerie Van Isler, g.m. of WBAI, says Pacifica's connection with ACG would be a problem for the network, whose audience and supporters are staunchly pro-labor, "if you believe this is a union-busting company." But "big unions" in New York have never heard of ACG, she says. However, database-keeper Maria Boyle of the AFL-CIO did confirm that ACG, also known by other names, is on its roster of union busters.
Union reps say that ACG drafted the new contract that Pacifica managers presented to the three chapters of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). And Van Isler says Pacifica hired ACG to "help review and consolidate the three contracts." But Scott says ACG has only advised Pacifica on labor law and that she herself drew up the contract.
Scott also says that an attorney negotiating with UE on KPFK management's behalf may be affiliated with ACG. "I'm taking a look at that." Another attorney, Erick Becker, who has worked for KPFK, is associated with ACG, according to a company staffer.
"Is there something I should know about [ACG]?," Scott asked a reporter. When told about the AFL-CIO union-busters list, she said: "I'm about to cut my connection with them right now." Later she added, "I had no idea about this, and that is over." Scott later denied she said she'll cut ties with ACG and told Current that might not.
But KPFK General Manager Mark Schubb is more equivocal. "I'm not going to say what I would do" if KPFK management's advocate is an ACG employee, he says. "He's a good negotiator."
Scott says Pacifica has paid ACG only $1,000--$250 per station--for help with labor-related legal matters.
"Like going through a divorce"
The disputes at Pacifica have the nasty and pained intensity that true believers reserve for traitors--especially at Los Angeles station KPFK. Former UE steward and fired KPFK employee Lyn Gerry speaks only angrily and bitterly about Schubb and Scott, while a current KPFK employee who would not make any comment broke down in tears when asked about the conflicts.
Gerry, who says she's a former private eye, is doing a detailed investigation of Pacifica's union activities and has distributed via the Internet a nine-page, single-spaced document that has since made its way around the Pacifica-watcher's grapevine.
Gerry accuses KPFK's prior management of targeting union members for layoffs; the UE unit has dropped from 19 members to about 8 today. She also says Schubb harassed her out of the station with false, back-dated memos, one charging her with extortion and another with attempting to incite a riot at a public meeting. The memos were pay-back for outspoken union activism and criticism of management, she says.
The "riot" memo came in response to a comment Gerry admits making at a public meeting, to anyone in earshot, while Schubb was out of the room: "Yeah, you mother, you can dish it out, but you can't take it." Schubb says he heard some such comment as he was leaving the room and later handed down a memo saying it was inappropriate. He says he can't recall whether it mentioned inciting a riot.
Gerry's e-mail document also accuses Schubb of speaking against UE at staff meetings, of bringing in a "spy" to report on employees, and of issuing bonuses, as a divisive measure, to employees who didn't "get in his face." Schubb admits to giving bonuses to certain employees for working hard during a difficult time for KFPK, but denies ever speaking against UE at a staff meeting or bringing in a spy.
His discharge of three union members has only to do with their performance, he says. "When you manage an organization, there's changeover," he says. "People aren't doing their jobs well, they need to move on." The station, he says, "was run by an entrenched little club, and we're changing things." Gerry was part of that club, he says.
Gerry's fate was typical of the long-time Pacifica volunteer who repeatedly fights management: they eventually are shoved out the door. For her, the conflict had gone too far. She says: "One day I walked in [to the station] and said, 'I can't take this anymore. This is cracking me up." Her job was no longer anything like the job she wanted. "I thought I was through working for ignoramuses who ... . expect you to genuflect." She left a note saying she was taking disability leave and walked out the door. KPFK sent termination papers to her home.
Whatever the right/wrong tally at the end of these staff-management conflicts, they take a human toll worth mention. Gerry had been with the station since 1988, and leaving it that way "was like going through a divorce, or perhaps a loss of faith," she says. "That's the only way I can talk about the depths of the spiritual crisis I went through."
The life of the station
Schubb is a union man himself--a former member of the Screen Actors Guild who unsuccessfully petitioned the guild to expel Ronald Reagan for firing the striking air traffic controllers. He points to his labor sympathies, and the whole Pacifica ethic, to defend the network's current position toward labor. "If we were union-busting, we wouldn't be negotiating, coming back week after week. This wouldn't be the approach. The idea that Pacifica would be union-busting is completely ridiculous."
Scott too points to her background as a UE organizer. "I find the allegations hurtful," she says.
Van Isler, g.m. of WBAI, is also a former organizer--who once helped bring UE to the New York station and for years worked at the station without pay. Today at WBAI, activists have set up a "hotline" to inform and update the public about the UE struggle. (The gentle-sounding telephone update is voiced, according to programmer Eddie Goldman, by "someone's mother.") The union supporters have placed articles in community papers, and are sporting "Save WBAI" stickers.
"Normally," says Goldman, "with every other struggle in the world, you could go to someplace like WBAI and get the word out." But Pacifica bars hosts from discussing internal conflicts on the air, WBAI can't be used for an S.O.S.
As at KPFA, WBAI unpaid staff are union members, with rights to a grievance procedure if they're dismissed, and representation on the programming council that advises the station. The new contract would decertify these unpaid staff, bringing WBAI's UE count down from about 200 to about 20, according to R. Paul Martin, chief steward. Though such a drastic reduction in membership would clearly weaken the local's leverage and make it pretty hard to strike, there is still a compelling issue of principle, according to another steward, Max Schmid. "It's a matter of giving due respect to people who produce the programming. They are as much a part or more so, of the station than the functionaries who are paid."
Van Isler says volunteers will always be an important part of WBAI's life. "For 30 years, the volunteers had no union, and volunteers were valued and protected." (The WBAI/UE contract dates back to the late 1980s.)
"These contracts are about wages and livelihood, salaries and benefits of employees," she says. "That has to be the primary focus for all of us."
Scott says grievance procedures outlined in the old contract make it too difficult to pull programmers off the air. The relationships between volunteers and stations must change, she says. "I don't want to take volunteers simply because they want to volunteer." Desire and motivation have to be matched with performance, and they haven't always been in the past, she says.
Union employees see a more extreme agenda. They say Van Isler is following orders from National, which is clearing the way for an eventual stream of national programming beamed from Berkeley. Says Schmid: "Once they have all the satellite and transmission technology in place, they can centralize programming ... and basically have satellite units around the country, with limited staff who make sure the transmitter is working and the feed going out properly from headquarters. Not quickly or soon, but that's what they're clearing the way for."
Pacifica does have plans to feed programming via its new Ku-band satellite system. According to Scott, the shows will be locally produced programs such as WBAI's popular Natural Living with Gary Null and KPFA's We the People with Jerry Brown. The idea, she has said, is to free up some of station's hours, spread the costs of production around the network. Additionally, although Scott did not speak to this, Pacifica will be better positioned to seek underwriting grants from foundations if shows are carried nationally. The network doesn't take corporate underwriting.
Eddie Goldman, a volunteer producer whose shows often focus on professional wrestling, says a more centralized programming flow would shift WBAI to the right. "It would change the nature of the station," he says. "As anybody knows, you follow the money trail. [WBAI] won't interview people in jail, expose racism and environmental problems and gay and lesbian issues. We wouldn't have that type of cutting-edge stuff."
Goldman and other programmers, then, believe they're fighting for the life of the institution. It was a difficult setback for them when WBAI's lawyer announced at the negotiating table last month that he had asked the National Labor Relations Board to clarify whether unpaid staff can legitimately be union members.
"I was shocked and betrayed," says Schmid. "It was like being hit in the stomach." The move belied good-faith negotiating, says Goldman. "To do that in the middle of a contract negotiation is outrageous. . . a nasty way to do stuff." UE rep Bruce Clipple says he doesn't expect to win this fight--it's clear the National Labor Relations Act addresses paid workers.
At KPFA in Berkeley the union has won a one-year extension of its existing contract. Although manager Marci Lockwood sent the unit notification that the contract would be terminated, she did not give the required 60 days notice and so was unsuccessful. In an open letter to management, union members question the appropriateness of paying "an antagonist" with listener dollars. "The appearances of anti-labor tactics employed by the most anti-union private corporations (consultants, union-busting contracts). . . signals an alarming direction in which KPFA's treatment of its own employees may soon be at drastic odds with the progressive values it attempts to bring to its airwaves."
Preaching to a tiny choir
Pacifica hopes by the end of 1997 to have doubled its collective audience--which many people inside and outside of the network believe has been far too low. Those who support Pacifica's changes insist the network is doing an even better job in its mission "to promote cultural diversity and pluralistic community expression, to contribute to a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors, to promote freedom of the press and serve as a forum for various viewpoints, and to maintain an independent funding base."
"I think we have a better commitment to peace and social justice after the changes," says KPFA's UE steward Jude Thilman. "Before we were preaching to a teeny-tiny choir." But, she adds, the way to reach more people is not by "stabbing the union in the back."
Defending the network's union proposal recently, both Scott and Van Isler began their arguments with: "We are a broadcasting organization."
This might seem obvious, but their critics probably wouldn't put it that way. Stalwart volunteers philosophically oppose the wave of professionalization that has swept through many other public radio stations before finally arriving at Pacifica.
Says Gerry: "They're trying to purge a lot of things ... It's less family, and more corporate." When she was still with KPFK, "They were looking to root out all different types of dissent," she says. "Whether it's hippie shit, or radical black people, or people that won't genuflect, or people that were zealots. They wanted people to become radio professionals, and most of the people weren't there to become radio professionals. They were there because they had religion."
To Current's home page
Later news: Pacifica's executive director replies in letter to Current.
Later news: Scott resigns, effective fall 1998.
Outside link: Pacifica Foundation's home page
Outside link: The insurgents' Free Pacifica home page, established October 1996.
Web page revised Oct. 12, 1996
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