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KPFA’s working majority gets screwed by CWA job trust

December 9, 2010

by Isis Feral

Hard Knock Radio host Davey D speaks at a positive, harmonious rally outside KPFA on Nov. 11. Organized by JR Valrey (Block Report Radio) of the unpaid staff and Anita Johnson (Hard Knock Radio) of the paid staff, the rally was called to save Hard Knock Radio, Flashpoints and Full Circle, produced by the apprenticeship program, three popular shows that leaders of the unionized staff had proposed to eliminate altogether. The large crowd at this rally is dedicated to grassroots community radio that’s true to Pacifica’s founding mission “to encourage and provide outlets for the creative skills and energies of the community; … to engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; to gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between any and all of such groups; and … to promote the study of political and economic problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms.” – Photo: Lisa Dettmer
I was raised by several generations of labor organizers, and in every labor dispute my side is easily chosen. I don’t cross picket lines, and I always stand with the workers against their bosses. The current conflict inside KPFA is the first time I’ve ever seen my community divided on an issue concerning labor solidarity.

While labor struggles are usually strictly polarized, it is important to keep in mind that KPFA is a nonprofit community radio station, where the traditional class lines are much harder to draw. In theory, the community is in charge of the station, or at least it should be. It’s the community who pays the bills and who this station claims to serve.

Community radio is supposed to be by and for the community, more like a movement than a business. The majority of KPFA workers are community members, who donate their labor for free.

As some tasks require consistent, daily attention, a limited number of workers must be paid for their time, because volunteering the necessary hours would interfere with their ability to make a living. The line between workers and management is blurry, to say the least.

To complicate matters, several unionized workers recently held management positions or effectively behave like managers.

For some time now a group among the paid workers and their allies on the Local Station Board (LSB) have largely held control over the management of the station. With the capitalist economic crisis crippling our communities, the station’s income has understandably been less.

When budget cuts had to be made, they were agreed to by this group but were never implemented. This happened two years in a row. With each new budget, the cuts were deeper, because the previous cuts were never made.

Now the necessary cuts are deeper still, because KPFA funds were massively mismanaged: More money was spent than was coming in, including a million dollars the station had in reserve.

The height of incompetence was achieved when a six figure check intended to earn interest sat in their general manager’s desk for a year instead of being deposited, apparently unnoticed even by their treasurer.

Recent payroll funds had to be borrowed from another station. The station is broke and we’re at risk of losing it altogether.

On the LSB, this managing group was represented by the slate calling itself Concerned Listeners. Right before the last elections, this slate renamed itself Save KPFA, in what appeared to be an effort to confuse and solicit the support of voters who remember the original Save KPFA, which had the polar opposite intent of this group: The original organization officially formed in order to defend community control of the radio station in the 1990s.

This new group, on the other hand, has actively attempted to dismantle community oversight and to defer control to a small percentage of KPFA staff who call themselves KPFA Worker. The appropriation of another organization’s name and attempt to benefit from its history was just one of several unfair campaign practices this group has been involved in over the years. Among other things, they repeatedly used the airwaves to gain support for their slate, without giving the other candidates fair access to do the same.

The new Save KPFA is representing the issue as a labor dispute and is claiming that the union of the paid workers is getting busted. Let me be clear: There is currently NO union busting going on at KPFA.

Because of the deficit and a refusal to actually implement budgets these people had agreed to, the axe that is falling now is impacting some of their own people, not just the jobs of others that they themselves have threatened to eliminate, or eliminated already. These cuts are being represented as going by a “hit list” against progressive programmers, but actually they are being made by seniority and follow the guidelines of their own union contract, unlike the cuts they have advocated themselves. It’s terrible to see people losing their jobs, but this is not union busting by any stretch of the imagination.

Let me be clear: There is currently NO union busting going on at KPFA.

The real union busting that happened at KPFA was in the 1990s, when the Pacifica National Board, which was at the time undemocratically appointed, hired professional union busters, the American Consulting Group. They busted the independent, progressive United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), which represented all KPFA workers, both paid and unpaid.

Local 9415 of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) swooped in like a vulture and became an exclusive job trust for the paid staff. Many people now refer to the managing faction of the still unionized workers as the “entrenched staff,” and some call the CWA a “scab union.”

From the start, the CWA played the divisive role of an elitist private club, rather than that of a union. To this date, unpaid workers, who currently make up about 80 percent of KPFA’s workforce, are barred from membership. Many of them have been donating their labor to KPFA for many years. Without them, the station and community radio cannot exist.

Unpaid staff represented by the UE were entitled to such benefits as travel expenses and childcare. The latter is particularly relevant in considering what happened to Nadra Foster in 2008, when she was accused of misappropriating KPFA resources, after printing out a few sheets of math homework to keep her children engaged while she was working.

This accusation led to her getting banned from the station, charged with trespassing and beaten and injured by the cops, who were called by management without any interference from the entrenched staff. Even in the aftermath, their names are conspicuously absent among those of 74 of their fellow workers who condemned management’s use of police force and expressed solidarity with Nadra.

The year prior, right before the 2007 LSB elections, the Unpaid Staff Organization (UPSO), which is the closest thing to a union for volunteering workers at KPFA, was decertified – a friendly name for union busting – by station management supported by these Concerned Listeners. This move eliminated the rights of many of the unpaid staff to participate in the elections.

In 2005 a leaked email among members of the entrenched staff and their supporters, the suggestion was made that perhaps the LSB should be dismantled altogether. Under their management, the Program Council, previously in charge of deciding programming, has also been effectively stripped of its power. Does this sound like community control?

As a child of the labor movement, I am appalled to see people who are behaving as management at the station opportunistically exploiting their on-paper union membership to solicit the support of the labor movement and the left, while they are refusing to comply with the very union contract that was negotiated on the backs of their sacrificed fellow workers.

I believe that the fake Save KPFA – on Indybay someone refers to them as “Slave KPFA” – and the KPFA Worker group are misrepresenting this as a labor dispute in an attempt to politically legitimize their turf war. What they are teaching listeners about community building and organizing labor are disastrous lessons to be aired on a supposedly progressive radio station and represents a grave disservice to the community at large and the labor movement in particular.

The recent “informational picket” was another example of this group merely posturing as organized labor. Using the word “picket” to describe a protest, which does not have the explicit intent to blockade, teaches people that real picket lines are negotiable, that it’s okay to cross them.

Historically picket lines are not merely gatherings where we exercise free speech. They are a very specific form of direct action. Picket lines mean don’t cross! It’s not a matter of semantics. Picket lines are THE militant direct action tradition of the labor movement. Of course, this point is likely lost on KPFA’s current union staff, since their right to strike was bargained away for higher pay by the CWA, as they betrayed their fellow workers of the UE.

The Pacifica management of the 1990s recognized that the UE represented not just workers, but that the workers in turn represent our communities. Replacing the UE with the CWA created a deep division within KPFA and paved the way for what we are witnessing today.

The current crisis is part of a long history of attempts to undermine community control at the station and to turn it into just another mainstream professional media outlet. But one doesn’t have to be a professional to understand what generations of working class people have taken for granted as basic common decency: Any labor organization that does not represent all workers has no business calling itself a union.

Union corruption has become a stereotype used by conservatives to rally working people against unionizing. What they conveniently leave out is that unions belong to workers, not to paid union bureaucrats who corrupt the union’s integrity, as well as their own, as they negotiate compromises with the boss. When there is such corruption, it’s the responsibility of the rank and file to reclaim the union as the tool for which it was intended.

A union’s primary purpose is to unite workers. The CWA must be held accountable, not be rewarded with community solidarity, for its divisive role at KPFA.

If the union continues to refuse membership and the right to collective bargaining to the majority of KPFA workers, unpaid workers owe it to themselves and their communities to organize union representation for themselves elsewhere. I urge the KPFA community at large, including those paid workers who still remember what solidarity really means, to encourage and actively aid such efforts.

Author’s note: The author is an autonomous activist, who is not affiliated with, nor endorses, any of the Local Station Board election slates, nor any other organization, but writes strictly from her own conscience. The embedded links in this text are not exhaustive evidence to support my views, but merely a small selection of additional information I found personally helpful in illustrating my position. I encourage all to do your own research and fact-checking and reach your own conclusions.

Isis Feral can be reached at isisferal@yahoo.com.

6 thoughts on “KPFA’s working majority gets screwed by CWA job trust

  1. ginger

    Oh give me a break! There is no union busting at KPFA? After management just hired a union-busting law firm and refuses to talk with the workers. CWA doesn’t refuse membership to unpaid workers. Under existing labor law you can get much through barganinig if you are a worker who doesnt get paid. CWA actually met several times over the past decade to see if unpaid workers would join a local of CWA, but it didn’t work out. Seem to me one of those things people say they want, but they don’t want to do he hard work or pay the dues to make it happen. instead, they’ll complain later!

    Reply
  2. Kell

    The reason KPFA’s unpaid staff aren’t represented by a union (CWA or any other) is simple: the National Labor Relations Board decided they could NOT be represented, after Pacifica’s anti-union management took the case all the way to the NLRB and got the decision they wanted.

    The NRLB decision is right here – read it for yourself: http://www.nlrb.gov/shared_files/Board%20Decisions/328/328-179.pdf

    Yes, the UE contract had included some protections for the station’s unpaid staff, and it is sad Pacifica did this. Still, no KPFA unpaid staff were members of UE or paid dues. The UE contract for KPFA merely included some grievance and reimbursement clauses for unpaid workers. A good thing certainly, but not the mythology of “KPFA workers were represented” or any of this other anti-union crap that is being published to attack the union. That’s just plain old union-busting.

    KPFA’s paid workers democratically decided to affiliate with CWA after Pacifica launched its union-busting attack. CWA asked to have unpaid protections reinstated, but Pacifica management would not agree to do so.

    Because of the NLRB decision and its effect on existing labor law, KPFA’s unpaid staff do NOT have collective bargaining rights, so the union can’t represent them.

    Unpaid staff can, of course, negotiate something themselves “by agreement” with management. So far, they have chosen not to do so.

    You can check kpfaworker.org and savekpfa.org for more interesting facts, including ones about the financial issues at Pacifica, that you are not getting here.

    Reply
  3. observer

    This writer clearly has no understanding of unions, or of KPFA or Pacifica history.

    First, don’t you remember your basic Pacifica history? Pacifica management “busted” the UE in the 90s by bringing a case to the NRLB to get the unpaid staff removed from the bargaining unit. They won. Unfortunately, the result of that legal decision was that unpaid staff no longer have any collective bargaining rights. It’s been that way for over a decade.

    Whether the paid staff are represented by one union or another is their choice. They democratically chose CWA because it was a stronger media union in the bay area, whereas UE didn’t even have a local office nearby (deindustrialization had shrunk it badly in the 1990s). CWA is one of the most democratic unions in the labor movement, and represents many media workers across the nation.

    Second, KPFA’s paid and unpaid workers can endorse whomever they like in local board elections just like any one else, and most have clearly chosen SaveKPFA. That group won more seats than its competitor (which some other staff endorsed). So what? In classic Pacifica fashion, listeners and staff are both concerned about the station and work together on many projects. That doesn’t mean staff “control” the board.

    And far from “dismantling community oversight,” SaveKPFA is a broad coalition rooted in the community. Thousands of its supporters have written, demonstrated, and pledged their backing for change at Pacifica, and voiced their outrage at what the current Pacifica administration, embodied by executive director Arlene Engelhardt, is doing to the station.

    Third, KPFA’s funds have been “massively mismanaged” but not by the people the author accuses. See http://www.SaveKPFA.org and click on “FACTS ON KPFA’S CRISIS” at the top for the true story behind the financial shenannigans of Pacifica’s current national board and its affect on KPFA. Incompetent board members and managers like LaVarn Williams and Arlene Engelhardt are at the root of the network’s troubles. You can also find lots of interesting information about KPFA at http://www.kpfaworker.org .

    Fourth, the author states, “Many people now refer to the managing faction of the still unionized workers as the ‘entrenched staff’, and some call the CWA a ‘scab union’. From the start the CWA played the divisive role of an elitist private club, rather than that of a union.” Nope, afraid not. The only people who use these kinds of nasty, union-busting terms are this author and a few friends who are pissed the lost a majority on KPFA’s board. The station’s workers, like others around the world, made their choice of union and are quite committed to it. Look, there are about 35 paid workers at KPFA, all members of the union, all have a vote. Managers are not part of the unit. There are a handful (4 or so) department heads who do daily non-managerial tasks at the station and are part of the unit. The rest of the 30 plus workers are techs, bookkeepers, on-air programmers, subscription database people. Kinda like most unionized employees around the nation.

    As far as being “entrenched” — what a loaded term — there are tons of unpaid staff who have been at KPFA for decades. Aren’t they “entrenched”? How come Dennis Bernstein — rather “entrenched” no matter how you define it — is never accused of such by his admirers?

    Fifth, “Unpaid staff represented by the UE were entitled to such benefits as travel expenses and childcare.” Yes, before Pacifica took its case to the NLRB and busted the UE, that was true. However, did you know the childcare reimbursement was only about 10 cents an hour? Wow, hate to lose that benefit! The travel reimbursement still applies; any unpaid staffer can get it.

    Sixth, as far as UPSO being “the closest thing to a union for volunteering workers,” well maybe, theoretically, if it actually had participation from a broad range of unpaid staff. It doesn’t. UPSO’s leadership has been so poor they could not even run a proper election for years. Three or four people making decisions in the name of 150 unpaid staffers isn’t acceptable, which is why management de-recognized it at one point.

    Seven, the author writes: “they are refusing to comply with the very union contract, that was negotiated on the backs of their sacrificed fellow workers.” Who’s refusing? There is no union contract for unpaid staff, and there hasn’t been for over a decade. Pacifica ensured that when it engaged in union busting in the 1990s and took its case to the NLRB to toss the unpaid staff out of its bargaining units and won. CWA asked at the bargaining table to have unpaid rights included; management refused. CWA also held a series of meetings unpaid staff and welcomed them to organize back in the 90s. Unpaid staff decided the interest was not there.

    The “deep division within KPFA” this author dreams up doesn’t exist. Most people at the station work productively together and are respectful of differing opinions. The “paid union bureaucrats” that this author refers to also don’t exist — the KPFA local is all-volunteer, with members giving of their time to make the union work.

    The “deep division at KPFA” has nothing to do with the union, it has to do with ignorant outsiders like this writer tossing around ridiculous unfounded accusations and rhetoric for their own political purposes, with no knowledge of the KPFA situation or its history.

    Reply
  4. Dennis

    The reason KPFA’s unpaid staff aren't represented by a union (CWA or any other) is simple: the National Labor Relations Board decided they could NOT be represented, after Pacifica's anti-union management took the case all the way to the NLRB and got the decision they wanted back in 1999.

    The NRLB decision is right here – read it for yourself: http://www.nlrb.gov/shared_files/Board%20Decision

    When that decision was rendered, the parts of the UE contract that had included some protections for the station's unpaid staff were made invalid. Even before that, no KPFA unpaid staff were members of UE or paid dues. The UE contract for KPFA merely included some grievance and reimbursement clauses for unpaid workers. A good thing certainly, but not the mythology of "KPFA workers were represented" or any of this other anti-union crap that is being published to attack the union. That's just plain old union-busting.

    By the time KPFA's paid workers democratically decided to affiliate with CWA in 1994 after the UE contract had expired, unpaid staff protections were long gone due to that NLRB decision. CWA asked to have unpaid protections reinstated, but Pacifica management would not agree to do so.

    Because of the NLRB decision and its effect on existing labor law, KPFA's unpaid staff do NOT have collective bargaining rights, so the union can't represent them.

    Unpaid staff can, of course, negotiate something themselves "by agreement" with management. So far, they have chosen not to do so.

    You can check kpfaworker.org and savekpfa.org for more interesting facts, including ones about the financial issues at Pacifica, that you are not getting here.

    Reply

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