Victory In Sight For Striking Workers At Pacifica

Imagine a radio news network run by its rank and file, where employees and supporters determine network policy. Imagine that this network broadcasts stories that affect working people, about labor disputes and corporate mismanagement, rather than stories that suit the interests of advertisers and investors.

For over two years, freelance reporters at Pacifica News Network (PNN) have been on strike in an effort to preserve such a network. After a series of recent negotiations, it appears that democracy at PNN will soon be restored.

In January 2000--following lockouts and mass firings at Pacifica's Berkeley, California, and New York stations, repeated censorship of news stories, and threats and intimidation against dissenting workers--more than 40 PNN freelancers formed an independent, democratically run union, called Pacifica Reporters Against Censorship, and went on strike. These freelancers (or stringers) had been hired as independent contractors and thus were not allowed to join PNN's union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The stringers structured their union democratically, as a model for how Pacifica might be run.

"Since we're contingent workers, management didn't think they'd have to deal with us," said one striking reporter. Yet, she continued, "freelancers do most of the reporting for Pacifica," and almost all of the reporting from outside Washington, D.C., where Pacifica is headquartered.

The striking freelancers produced their own news broadcast, "Free Speech Radio News," which was picked up by stations around the U.S. Since Pacifica's technical workers were AFTRA members, who were not authorized to strike (and chose not to support the strikers), stringers managed all aspects of the Free Speech broadcast, from sound editing to reportage. As support for the workers grew, more and more local stations dropped their Pacifica newscasts and picked up Free Speech Radio News. The freelancers also persuaded some of Pacifica's scab reporters to come work with Free Speech Radio, which is now carried by stations around the country.

As PNN lost more and more of its freelancers to the strike, the quality of their broadcasts diminished considerably. Some Pacifica broadcasts were composed entirely of interviews with analysts, without any actual reporting from the field.

The Pacifica conflict was particularly nasty at WBAI, Pacifica’s New York station. In November 1999, management fired WBAI’s news director Dan Coughlin for airing a brief story on the conflict at Pacifica (various local and mainstream news stations had also covered the conflict). Over the next month, many WBAI workers who supported Coughlin were censored, fired, locked out, or forced to resign, as Pacifica’s management consolidated their authority.

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AFTRA represented many of Pacifica's paid workers, including Coughlin and many of those locked out and fired during management's takeover of WBAI. While the strike won support from many unions--including locals of CWA, UE, ILWU and the National Writers Union--AFTRA initially sided with management. AFTRA said it would remain "neutral," while calling the strike "irresponsible," saying that the issues being protested by workers were "wholly unrelated to legitimate labor/management issues at Pacifica."

Pacifica’s management was overtly anti-union. In 1995, Pacifica hired American Consulting Group, a union-busting organization, to draft new contracts for its workers. The contracts ACG drew up denied workers the right to strike or participate in Pacifica’s decision-making processes. Moreover, Pacifica’s management employed the anti-union law firm Epstein Becker & Green; this firm is dedicated to creating a “union-free environment" and is on the AFL-CIO’s boycott list. John Murdock, a partner in the firm, was briefly appointed to Pacifica’s Board of Directors.

As one of the only non-corporate international news organizations, Pacifica is worth millions of dollars (KPFA's value is estimated at $200 million, WBAI is considered comparable). The strikers and their supporters allege that Pacifica's Board of Directors was preparing to sell off some of their stations (most likely WBAI or KPFA) to private corporations. These allegations were confirmed by an internal memo sent to Pacifica's former board chairperson, Mary Frances Berry. The memo advised Berry that selling WBAI would create, "[an] opportunity to redefine Pacifica going forward." Undoubtedly, management's push for increased control over broadcast content was an attempt to prepare PNN for corporate culture, a culture less likely to tolerate their traditionally pro-worker perspective.

A group of labor activists, who formed the Labor Committee for a Democratic Pacifica, drafted a resolution condemning Pacifica’s conduct. This committee included members of NALC (National Association of Letter Carriers), IUOE (International Union of Operating Engineers), and the Sign and Display Workers Union. Their resolution stated that "the growing monopolization of media outlets and the deregulation of radio, television and cable systems has eliminated many . . . labor voices from the airwaves of the United States." Pacifica's affiliates had been among the only stations in the country to regularly broadcast labor-related news; thus, an attack on these stations was "an attack on labor itself."

"CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC"

In December 2001, Pacifica agreed in court to dismantle its Board of Directors and replace it with an interim board. This new board, the majority of whose members supported the strikers, quickly voted to rehire all of the WBAI staff who had been fired and to lift the "gag rule" imposed by management regarding discussion of Pacifica business on the air. They also agreed to fire the union-busting lawyers who had been hired by the old board.

Gradually, Pacifica’s programming is returning to its pre-dispute quality. Many of the shows cancelled at the height of management’s hostility are back on the air. The strikers are still negotiating with the new board, but victory appears to be in sight. One of the strikers, Vanessa Tait, describes their mood as "cautiously optimistic." Recently, Pacifica agreed to air the strikers’ “Free Speech Radio News,” on WBAI, which Tait views as a sign that, though this dispute is not fully resolved, the Pacifica Network appears to be headed in the right direction.

For more information on this dispute, go to www.fsrn.org.