Free Expression

The Battle Over Pacifica
The Background

[Note: We expect to replace this background piece shortly with the commissioned article by Steffie Brooks. Eds. The following article appears in American Writer (Fall 2001), the national magazine of the National Writers Union. The union's resolution in support of the PNN strike included a chance for the strikers to tell their story. ]

NWU Votes to Support Pacifica Strike
By Eileen Sutton

A strike by any other name

With passionate endorsement from many of its own rank and file, this past June the National Executive Board (NEB) of the National Writers Union overwhelmingly approved a two-part free-speech resolution regarding Pacifica Radio. Part one renews support for dozens of freelance radio journalists who struck Pacifica Network News (PNN) last year over the very ugly issue of censorship. Part two supports a Pacifica Radio financial boycott, unleashed in February by the Campaign to Stop the Corporate Takeover of Pacifica (the Pacifica Campaign).

NWU National Vice President Dean Paton thinks the PNN strike - one of the first broad labor actions by contingent writers - speaks volumes about the different issues confronting freelance versus shop workers. "First Amendment rights are certainly a blessing to all Americans. But they are the very bread and butter for freelance reporters in a place like Pacifica," Paton said.

Why all the fracas at a station started by a pacifist? Long a bastion of free speech, the country's oldest listener-sponsored progressive network has broadcast Alan Ginsberg's Howl, defied the McCarthyite witch hunts and aired the commentaries of death-row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. Always influential, Pacifica has been denounced on the floor of Congress and investigated by the FBI. Its 50-plus years of programming reflect a tireless bellow of anti-establishment voices, a fierce challenge to the political status quo and a genuine commitment to racial inclusion. Until now.

Supporters say the five-station Pacifica network (Berkeley, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C.) has been shanghaied from the top through a duplicitous corporate "clique." They say lawyers from anti-union law firms, media entrepreneurs and corporate-finance giants now sit on its national board, and are feverishly trying to mainstream Pacifica's political and cultural legacy through dissident purges, music formats, union busting and the imposition of commercial standards to measure Pacifica's reach.

One of the nation's last outposts of speech not owned by a corporation, Pacifica's current licenses are worth millions. Pacifica has said repeatedly it is merely "professionalizing the network."

In spring 1999, Pacifica used armed guards to lock out staff at Berkeley station KPFA. Many believe management intended to re-program and sell the station, which reopened after nearly 15,000 listeners hit the streets. What followed was a stunning wave of censorship, as management tried to control the public spin on a public media brawl that even the national corporate press considered worthy of coverage.

As a final blow, in December 1999, PNN director Dan Coughlin was "removed," while 12-year PNN news anchor Verna Avery-Brown resigned. PNN's free-lance reporters reacted immediately. A union didn't collectively represent them. So a majority from across the Americas, Europe and Asia (including many NWU members), formed Pacifica Reporters Against Censorship, and struck PNN in January 2000.

The stringers said rampant censorship at Pacifica had "become a way of life," and proudly characterized workers' rights as larger than wages and benefits. The strike rocked PNN, and quickly won support from the country's leading progressive voices. A flood of institutions and unions signed on, including five AFL-CIO central labor councils and the unionized staffs of KPFA, represented by the Communications Workers of America, and Pacifica's WBAI, represented by United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. To date, progressives everywhere refuse to give PNN comment, and reporters around the world refuse to cross the strike line.

Apropos of striking workers, the stringers launched a daily, half-hour alternative newscast, Free Speech Radio News, heard via the Internet, globally over short-wave and nationally on more than 40 community stations, most of whom are Pacifica affiliates who have stopped running PNN.

True to form, Pacifica management dismissed the strike. It said the reporters were not members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) - the union representing PNN's tiny paid staff - and therefore not allowed to strike. Some PNN staffers also felt compelled to side with management, and condemned the action.

Writing to NWU President Jonathan Tasini, PNN reporter and AFTRA shop steward Don Rush admonished the NWU's early strike support saying: "I'm deeply concerned that the NWU would join what has become a direct assault on the work of your union brothers and sisters at [PNN]. [AFTRA has] a contract with Pacifica management in good standing. Any suggestion that there is a strike at our unit is false."

Pacifica is, by tradition, a nearly all-volunteer institution. The stringers, while paid, are independent contractors and have no relationship to AFTRA. They argued they had every right to organize, and were not allowed to join PNN's union. Were Pacifica to send all its "non-union" members home on any given day, they say, the entire network would cease to exist.

Using every front, the Pacifica Campaign unfurled its strategy this past spring to oust the board through direct action and a national boycott. Dubbed the movement's "street heat," results are visible - resignations by five board members have reduced the board-clique majority to a slim one vote. As well, several suits are pending against Pacifica, while both the New York City Council and the Progress Caucus of the United States Congress have held hearings. Calls to Pacifica's public relations firm by American Writer for this article were not returned.

Many believe the PNN strike built a scaffolding of resistance upon which activists are now standing. Especially in New York. Security guards and early-morning firings of veteran staff marked what listeners describe as the brutal late-December, 2000 midnight lockdown at New York's WBAI. To date, 24 producers, who supporters say represent a gorgeous, human mosaic of the station's most radical voices, have been summarily removed. Critics say the on-air gagging and high-tech surveillance now engulfing WBAI - including the recent direct censorship of the station's local news - is a dire continuation of conditions first motivating the PNN strike 19 months ago.

The Pacifica Campaign recently reported that Pacifica's award-winning "Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman was physically assaulted by WBAI's Interim Station Manager Utrice Leid, and was intimidated and verbally harassed by other staffers. The Campaign's press release referred to Goodman as "routinely vilified." Fearing for her safety, Goodman moved her show to an off-site community studio after which she was promptly suspended without pay (three men at WBAI routinely broadcast from remote locations).

After tense negotiations, AFTRA ordered Goodman back to WBAI. Reached for comment, AFTRA spokesperson Dick Moore claimed Goodman's "imminent, initial complaints filed in terms of workplace safety had been resolved."

Goodman disagreed. Less than 24 hours later, Clayton Riley, a veteran WBAI producer referred to by the Pacifica Campaign as "one of the most virulent and violence-prone producers on WBAI," broadcast a tirade of threats which many believe were directed at Goodman. "When you talk about the enemy, you find the enemy, you isolate the enemy and you destroy the enemy," Riley said. "This conflict is not going to end until the dissidents, until the so-called exile community, is destroyed."

Falling under a firestorm of national protest for its apparent refusal to protect one of its workers, AFTRA has since rescinded its back-to-work order for Goodman saying it is "no longer satisfied that the WBAI studios are a safe and appropriate working environment for the 'Democracy Now!' staff." Pacifica management still demands Goodman's return, while Riley is off the air on "hiatus."

Sources say the NWU resolution passed only after a muscular, internal debate. Since AFTRA had denounced the Pacifica Campaign's call for a national boycott, claiming it threatened jobs, the NEB was clearly divided. Certain NEB members reportedly felt uncomfortable voting against another union, while other NEB members thought the strike and the boycott invoked larger issues. Undoubtedly, the NEB's process anticipates the dialogue many other unions will have in response to the unique nature of the PNN strike.

NEB-member and Central Region Vice President Ken Wachsberger introduced the NEB resolution, and felt the strike and the boycott were somewhat misunderstood. "Neither the PNN strike nor the boycott were targeting AFTRA. In fact, many AFTRA workers had already been forced out by management and supported the boycott," he said. "I felt strongly that a better future for Pacifica workers meant an absence of censorship and the freedom to create working conditions consistent with the network's mission. Finally, many of the strikers were NWU members. How could we not support them?"

"I believe the NWU had to support the Pacifica struggle if it honestly claimed leadership in the effort to organize freelancers," Paton added. And he urged the U.S. labor movement to deepen its commitment to one of this country's signature first-amendment clashes.

Activists say there is something unspeakably rare about the freedom inherent in community broadcasting. With media consolidation assuming gargantuan proportion, they say Pacifica is the absolute last place where free speech battles can even take place.

"It's like dealing with the last of a species," Paton added. "The battle to save Pacifica is fundamentally anchored in a threat to free speech. It's about the possibility of extinction."

(NWU Member Eileen Sutton is a poet, copywriter, journalist and PNN strike organizer banned within days of WBAI's "Christmas Coup.")