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Strange Days at the Pacifica Foundation

Strange Days at the Pacifica Foundation

Bill Berkowitz
March 29, 2012

The Pacifica Foundation, a pioneering progressive, non-commercial independent radio network, has hired Jackson Lewis, a law firm that operates ‘in the shadows of corporate union busting campaigns.'

It wasn't "Ten Days That Shook The World," Paris in 1968, or last year's Arab Spring, but in the late 1990s, the Board of the Pacifica Foundation alarmed the world of progressive radio by trying to implement a succession of regressive changes at its flagship station KPFA of Berkeley, California. The station manager was fired, staff was locked out, and the police were called in to enforce a shutdown of the station. More than 10,000 people marched in the streets of Berkeley in support of the oldest independent, non-commercial, listener-supported radio station in the country.

Now the Pacifica Foundation has hired Jackson Lewis, a notorious union busting law firm. This represents a dramatic and disturbing departure from Pacifica's progressive origins and sixty-year history that has included the internal resolution of sometimes fractious conflicts with its independent stations about funding, staffing, censorship, programming, listener demographics, attacks from the right, and unionization. (For more on the history of Pacifica see, Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network by Matthew Lasar.)

According to the American Rights at Work Web site, Jackson Lewis is a virtually unknown White Plains, New York-based legal firm that operates "in the shadows of corporate union busting campaigns" by "counsel[ing] businesses on labor relations strategies that prevent unions from entering the workplace."

Pacifica's history of internal conflicts

During the 1990s dust-up, Pacifica's National Board and staff, led by civil rights activist Mary Francis Berry, was "attempting to centralize control of content, in order to increase listenership," a Wikipedia article points out. "The rumors also included accusations that the board proposed changing the network's funding model away from reliance on listener donations and toward corporate foundation funding." Supporters were concerned that the Board "was considering selling both KPFA ... and [New York City's] WBAI ... which operate on commercial FM broadcast frequencies (94.1 and 99.5, respectively) worth hundreds of millions of dollars."

After "years of conflict, including court cases, public demonstrations, firings and strikes of station staff," a settlement was reached.

Now, more than a decade later, union workers are foul over the hiring of Jackson Lewis. "The union representing KPFA's workers, Communications Workers of America Local 9415, became aware of Jackson Lewis' hire by Pacifica at all five stations in the network - KPFA in the San Francisco Bay Area, KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFT in Houston, WPFW in Washington D.C., and WBAI in New York," a recent post by KPFA Worker at explained.

"We see the entry of Jackson Lewis as a declaration of war on the unions that represent Pacifica workers," wrote KPFA's union stewards. "We fear it will lead to unnecessary legal expenses the network can ill afford, sour Pacifica's already dismal relationship with its union workers, and alienate many listener-supporters who do not want their donations to be handed over to one of organized labor's greatest enemies in the United States."

Pacifica's history of broadcasting radical perspectives and politics is unparalleled in radio. Writing for the Huffington Post, David Macaray, a playwright, labor columnist and author, recently pointed out that he has been listening "to KPFK most of my adult life, and have never heard more ‘radical' anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-corporate, and pro-conspiracy material broadcast anywhere."

Works by Jack London, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman read over the air, Macaray recalled. "Hours and hours of uninterrupted Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs [were played] every Labor Day."

Macaray notes that things have changed over the past 10-12 years: "Beginning in 1999, when the Pacifica Foundation hired anti-union consultants, and posted armed guards on the premises during an employee dispute, Pacifica appears to have gone the way of other autocratic, anti-worker institutions." Regarding the hiring of Jackson Lewis, Mazaray wrote: It "is notorious for showing companies how to keep unions out. Not only was this a shocker, but Pacifica employees viewed it as a clear betrayal."

The Jackson Lewis way

Jackson Lewis, which has 48 offices around the country, "hold[s] seminars for employers on how to maintain a ‘union free environment.'" According to its Web site, a Jackson Lewis-sponsored seminar titled "How To Stay Union Free" discusses:

• "How competing unions are a new threat to you and your organization"
• "How to fight new organizing techniques including neutrality agreements, voluntary recognition, and corporate campaigns"
• "How you can make unions irrelevant to your employees before the organizing starts"
• "How to develop a comprehensive plan that starts working long before the union shows up"
• "How to empower your supervisors to exercise their union-free rights under the law"
• "How to protect your company's property rights when confronted with organizing"
• "How to define the communications agenda and put the union on the defensive"

Jackson Lewis also advises employers on mastering corporate ‘concerns' with the Americans with Disabilities Act, including targeting workers who take medical leave."

Writing for In These Times in 2007, journalist Art Levine ponied up $1,595 to attend an Executive Enterprise-organized and Jackson Lewis-led seminar on how companies can stay union free that was held at the Las Vegas Westin Casuarina.

Michael J. Lotito, "a 30-year veteran of anti-union legal wars," and his protégé, Michael Stief, III, led the seminar. "We believe that the union is irrelevant for the 21st century," declared Lotito. ""The goal is not to be union- free," explained Stief. "It's to be issue-free." Levine pointed out that seminar attendees "were advised to institute an open-door policy with employees, encouraging them to air any grievances or concerns fully. Not only would this keep them happy, it would help us to sniff out whether there was unionization afoot."

Although unions have been in decline over the past twenty years or more, Lotito "cautioned us against complacency" Levine wrote: "They'll attempt to destroy you no matter how good you are. The better you are, the bigger target you are." And, Lotito added: "It's going to cost you some money to remain union-free, sometimes big money."

Ironically, Levine pointed out, "Jackson Lewis has advised companies that have sometimes gotten into serious legal trouble. In the case of EnerSys, a South Carolina battery plant that retained Jackson Lewis at a cost of $2.7 million to thwart unionization, things got so bad that the NLRB eventually filed a complaint against EnerSys, accusing it of 120 violations of labor law, leading to a $7.75 million settlement with federal officials.

"EnerSys ... subsequently sue[d] Jackson Lewis for engaging in what it termed ‘a relentless and unlawful campaign to oust the union.' (EnerSys was apparently astonished to learn that the union-busting firm they'd hired had engaged in union-busting.) Jackson Lewis forcefully denied that it advised or engaged in wrongdoing. The case was recently settled under confidential terms."

Late last year, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, demonstrated outside Sotheby's locations in New York and Philadelphia "to protest the law firm's representation of the famed auction house in an ongoing contract dispute with its art handlers," reported. A Teamster press release claimed that Sotheby's "hired Jackson Lewis to attempt to starve its workers into giving up their job security and accepting wage cuts."

American Rights at Work Web site also described Jackson Lewis involvement "help[ing] Borders crush union support by firing union activists and threatening to close stores if workers voted for union representation," and the firm's work for The New York Daily News where it was hired "six months before union contracts expired in 1989, in preparation for a ‘war' with the unions. The workers eventually went on strike in response to the employer's refusal to bargain contracts with the workers in good faith."

Interestingly, despite the recession, Jackson Lewis' "Gross revenue increased by just over 15 percent last year [2010], to about $295.6 million, after gains of 10 percent in 2009 and 20 percent in 2008," To9m Huddleston Jr. reported for The Am Law Daily.

Veteran labor reporter Dick Meister pointed out in a comment at Web site that, "As an early KPFA subscriber and commentator for 20 years, a current commentator on KPFT, I'm appalled at Pacifica's hiring of a union buster. It's an action one could expect from the commercial media corporations that dominate broadcast but absolutely counter to the interests of Pacifica's employees, volunteers and subscribers and anyone else who believes in genuine free speech."

Workers at KPFA in Berkeley wrote to the Pacifica National Board requesting that they reconsider the hiring of Jackson Lewis. According to David Macaray, "On March 7, Pacifica Board members gave their answer. They refused to reverse the decision. This nationally recognized union-busting law firm would remain on the payroll."


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