Workers to Protest Pacifica Radio Over Union Busting

Written by Rebecca Rosen Lum. Posted in Labor, News

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Published on April 16, 2012 with 26 Comments

File photo by Luke Thomas.

By Rebecca Rosen Lum

Editor’s Note: The demonstration calling on Pacifica to sever its ties with Jackson Lewis takes place from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday April 18 outside KPFA (and adjacent Pacifica  headquarters) at 1929 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley.

April 16, 2012

KPFA workers and their supporters will take to the streets Wednesday to protest Pacific Radio Network’s hiring of a law firm the AFL-CIO has dubbed “the devil incarnate” and the “the number one union-buster in America.”

Pacifica Foundation hired Jackson Lewis in 2010, but that is the only point of agreement between the five-station, listener-supported broadcasting network and its KPFA workers group.

Pacifica’s executive director argues that the organization simply plucked the law firm from a list of firms approved by its insurance carrier to handle litigation.

“We deplore ‘union busting’ wherever it occurs—and it will not occur at Pacifica on my watch,” writes Arlene Engelhardt in a March 30 guest commentary that appeared on RadioSurvivor.com. “Jackson Lewis was first hired in 2010 to handle only litigation and is not involved in union relations at Pacifica at all.”

She said Pacifica hired the firm only after previous attorneys bungled employee lawsuits, and that Jackson Lewis saved money by working at reduced rates and pressing for early settlements.

“Terminating Jackson Lewis would be reckless and expensive,” she writes in her missive, adding that station supporters have deliberately misrepresented the actions and the intents of the national board “to whip up a frenzy.”

“I don’t care…what they were hired to do,”  shot back KPFA board member Conn Hallinan. “The idea that we would give our members’ money to fuel an anti-democratic, anti-worker, anti-progressive organization like this is just beyond belief.”

KPFA station chair Margy Wilkinson said the foundation’s retainer contract signed in January with Jackson Lewis includes labor issues.

“It just leaves me breathless that they would hire (Jackson Lewis),” she said.

Jackson Lewis, which employs 400 attorneys in 25 cities, is among the “top five or so best known firms” specializing in union avoidance, said John Logan, Director of Labor and Employment Studies at the San Francisco State University College of Business.

“Given the current labor dispute between Pacifica and its workforce, it is understandable that employees and others are concerned that the company has hired this particular firm,” he said in an email message.

Logan’s 2008 study of U.S. anti-union consultants quotes this bit of advice from Jackson Lewis attorneys: “If you want to keep the union out of your place, you’ve got to work at it day and night … weed ‘em out.” The company spends tens of thousands to several million dollars on anti-union campaigns. Its website lists a “2012 Union-Free Educational Program.”

“The firm has been involved in several campaigns involving allegations of egregious unfair management practices and campaigns in which employers have spent significant amounts of public money on anti-union activities,” the study says.

Engaging a firm with Jackson Lewis’ record could torpedo the station’s already tenuous relationship with its unionized staff and alienate listeners who do not want their donations going to a firm that has positioned itself against organized labor, says a letter from KPFA workers to the Pacifica National Board.

More than 1700 people around the country have signed an online petition demanding that Pacifica immediately sever its relationship with Jackson Lewis.

The current labor troubles at KPFA, Pacifica’s founding station, stretch back more than a year, when station managers fired the staff of the popular KPFA Morning Show, violating seniority provisions of the union contract. Managers claim the move was a cost-saving measure, but afterward, morning listenership plummeted and donations to the station dropped off dramatically.

In fact, troubles with its parent organization have wracked the station for years. In a tense standoff more than a decade ago, Pacifica management hired anti-union consultants, installed armed guards and locked out staffers. The station went dark, with taped music replacing programming.

While its immediate goal is junking the Jackson Lewis contract, in the long term, what the station wants is autonomy, Wilkinson said. Pacifica’s insistence on making decisions hamstrings the station’s ability to meet the needs of its listeners, she said.

“It’s been a problem for a long time,” she said. “The executive director comes in and makes changes in the kinds of things local stations should have control over.

“It seems to me that all five (Pacifica) stations can work together on certain things, like the presidential election, but other than that, we have very different communities, and we each have to respond to the needs of our communities.”

For instance, the foundation rejected a proposed budget that averted layoffs without explanation, Wilkinson said. And it has dragged its feet on selecting a general manager out of a pool of candidates submitted by the local station, which the by-laws require, she said.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a veteran journalist who covers faith, culture and social issues. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting for her coverage of Richmond, Calif. at the Contra Costa Times. Her series on the financial abuse of elders resulted in changes to California state law, and her reporting on conditions at residential hotels led to criminal charges and the closure of a facility. She is currently at work on a foundation-funded series on the impacts of incarceration on communities and the promises of realignment, a California state program that moves low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.Her many awards include top honors from the California Teachers Association, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, and the National Association of Consumer Advocates. She also chairs the Pacific Media Workers Guild’s pioneering freelance unit. Under her leadership, the unit obtained dental and vision benefits, and introduced the Fair Freelance Seal, a commitment to decent pay and working conditions carried by a growing number of publications. She is working with independent journalists to launch new freelance units in Oregon, Washington and Colorado. She has taught English and civics to newcomers in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and serves as scholarship chair for the East Bay Press Club.

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