Pacifica and the unions
by David Bacon, 4/1/97
In relation to the controversy over the relationship between Pacifica and the unions, I think three points need clarification:
1. Pacifica went to the NLRB to exclude non-paid staff from the bargaining unit in New York. This wasn't an effort by the union to expand the unit. Pacifica was (and is) demanding a concession, and a very important one. After having recognized this unit for many years, both in New York and Berkeley, it is demanding that the unit be changed. Non-paid staff were included many years ago, not just because they do much of the work at the station, and need a process for formal representation, like greivance-handling. There is also a history of attempts by station management to use volunteers to run the stations when the staff struck. This happened on at least two occasions in Berkeley. By including both paid and unpaid staff in the bargaining unit, the union sought to keep this from happening again. Unpaid staff in New York are particularly active in the union. The chief steward is an unpaid staff member. Management's demand would therefore exclude the union's own leader.
It is inappropriate for Pacifica to seek to determine who should and should not belong to the union. That is a decision which belongs to the workers themselves, and they made it long ago. Management should recognize and bargain in good faith with the unit the workers have decided is the best for them. The fact that the law allows management to petition for a change in the unit speaks more to the dismal state of U.S. labor law than to any legitimate management right.
2. There is no question that the American Consulting Group is a union-buster. The organization is descended from the West Coast Industrial Relations Association, which had such a dirty record that the NLRB, as weak as it is, got court injunctions against its continued illegal activity. The principal officers of WCIRA are the same as the ACG. It is not just a company which has been involved in incidents of union-busting. Union-busting is its only business - it does nothing else. While some of its staff may have law degrees, it's not like a lawfirm one uses for legal advice. ACG provides strategic and tactical advice on how to fight unions.
Typical unionbuster advice around contract negotiations is to determine the kind of contract demands to put on the table which would provoke confrontation with the union, and would weaken it severely. This is what happened in Detroit, for instance. No one uses a unionbuster if their intention is to reach agreement in a cordial atmosphere. Not only don't you need one to do that, hiring one makes the process much more confrontational, and agreement much more difficult to reach at best.
When I was researching my article on unionbusters (in the current issue of Covert Action), I found it very easy to find information about ACG. Simply by calling the AFL-CIO and asking, I was able to get a list ranking the major unionbusting firms in the U.S. today. ACG is prominent on the list. The AFL-CIO published a Report on Union Busters (the RUB Sheet) for many years. Fred Young, head of ACG, was featured in many of them. The firm is currently masterminding the campaign against the immigrant-based union drive of the hotel workers (HERE 2850) in Lafayette, near Berkeley, and against immigrant workers in the tomato packing plant belonging to Toma-Tek in Firebaugh, in California's Central Valley (an organizing drive by the new Teamsters.) They are doubtless involved in others as well.
Since unionbusters hardly ever comply with their legal obligation to file financial reports with the Labor Department, it's hard to know what their fees are. But an anti-union law firm like Littler, Mendelssohn, Fastiff and Tichy typically charges about $250/hour. It seems unlikely on the surface that ACG could provide any service for $1000. In any case, it would be easy for Pacifica to simply disclose its contract and correspondence with ACG, specifying the money involved, the services which were to be supplied, and what services actually were supplied. It's hard to understand how Pacifica was referred to ACG in the first place, or by whom, or why. What was the specific subject management needed advice about, which was unavailable elsewhere?
3. The union contract in Berkeley, at least, used a wage model adopted originally from the Wobblies - one wage for all employees. That's why it sets both a minimum and a maximum. The rationale is traditionally that it avoids the possibility of favoritism, and that, as in many collectives, it recognizes the contributions of all employees as valuable. It was intended to attack the idea that only some work was important and worth high compensation, and that mundane jobs (clerical positions, for instance, or other jobs historically occupied by women and people of color) were much less important, and therefore worth less compensation. For the same reason, in past years, management positions were also paid at close to the same rate as other jobs in the stations.
The use of high wages to attract outside talent is an idea that deserves very close examination. Is it desirable to reproduce the corporate model in compensation? Many social service agencies and progressive organizations are struggling with this problem, not just Pacifica. I think it speaks to what kind of society we want to have. How we value the work of the people on the bottom is, I think, a good test of our belief in economic democracy.
Finally, I believe that progressive organizations should be held to a much higher standard in terms of labor relations than corporations or government. We're hypocrites if we don't put our ideals into action, and put principles like democracy, equality and economic justice into practice where we have the power. Obviously we can't do that in a corporation where we have no control. But we do have control in the institutions of our commmunity. This applies to unions as well, where, unfortunately, the record of relations with staff and staff unions is sometimes as antagonistic as with some private employers.
In any case, workers in non-profits and progressive institutions have
legitimate reasons for wanting to belong to unions, and their right to
do so is as important to defend as the right of workers elsewhere. In many
ways it's easier for progressive activists and media people to defend the
union rights of farmworkers, janitors and meatpacking workers, for instance,
than it is to defend workers in institutions which are, or should be, part
of our community. We often have friends on both sides of these disputes.
We value the institutions, and worry about their survival, in a way we
never would with a corporation. The Pacifica network carries Radio Nation.
I'm a labor programmer for KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles. We
have a stake in what Pacifica can mean to progressive journalism and to
the labor movement. But we have to defend the people inside the institution,
not just use it.