Public Comment

Commentary: Labor Struggles at KPFA

By Tracy Rosenberg and Ruthanne Shpiner
Friday October 05, 2007

At the risk of sounding banal in the extreme, the existence of independent media and its continued survival is critical. Independent media is invaluable. Particularly in today’s climate of media consolidation it is crucial that institutions such as the Planet are able to continue to thrive and survive. Berkeley is home to the free speech movement. Just as the Planet is a veritable institution in Berkeley, so is KPFA radio. Both have staff that render their services as labors of love whether paid staff at the Planet or unpaid staff at KPFA radio. The dedication and work of the staff at each of these institutions dovetail. For example on Mon. Oct. 1 KPFA interviewed Planet reporter J. Douglas Allen-Taylor on the current state of the city of Oakland and Mayor Ron Dellums. Planet editor Becky O’Malley has engaged in written exchanges with KPFA Sunday host Peter Laufer and has appeared on his show. The Planet covered the 1999 infamous KPFA lock out extensively. 

The unpaid staff (volunteer workers ) at Berkeley’s venerable KPFA radio received an unhappy surprise on Aug. 13, when a memo went out declaring that the unpaid workers’ organization was no longer recognized by station management. 

The Unpaid Staff Organization (“UPSO”) has existed for seventeen years to represent the interests of the more than 200 volunteers who produce the majority of the program hours at KPFA. Unpaid staff produce nearly all of KPFA’s music shows, and a substantial portion of its news and public affairs programs as well. KPFA’s volunteer staff is the crux of the station’s programming. Without their work the station, as we know it, could not survive. Without their work KPFA would have to air canned, prerecorded programs. 

The Aug. 13 memo, signed by interim General Manager Lemlem Rijio, declares, “Currently, there is no management-recognized ‘unpaid staff organization.’” Rijio’s memo says that station management acted because the UPSO had not functioned for nearly two years. Not mentioned was the fact that an election committee was in the process of conducting a vote to refill the posts of incumbents who had ceased to serve the UPSO. Rijio’s memo was issued only four days before the ballot due date of the UPSO election. Currently there is a petition circulating for unpaid staff to sign affirming signers wish to have the UPSO act as their representative body. The management memo of Aug 13 “pulls the rug out from under people who get very little for their dedication and hard work,” said Shahram Aghamir, a producer on KPFA’s “Voices of the Middle East” program. KPFA’s Local Station Board passed a resolution calling on management to rescind the memo and continue the long-standing policy of recognizing UPSO as the representative of the station’s unpaid workers; the Board vote was 13 yes, zero no, and five abstaining. 

Central to this is what management’s action portends for the future. Again to quote Aghamir, “This act by the GM is the canary in the coal mine.” The immediate effect of the Rijio memo was to complicate the upcoming election for Local Station Board members, possibly preventing some unpaid staff from voting in that election. Since her move to attempt to disenfranchise much of KPFA’s labor pool, in addition to the LSB resolution, the national election supervisor for Pacifica (KPFA’s parent organization) has ruled that the established UPSO guidelines for eligibility to vote in the 2007 LSB election must prevail, overturning Rijio’s memo. Still the management action may hamper the possibility of UPSO working to gain new benefits for unpaid staff, such as a formal grievance procedure comparable to that of the station’s unionized paid staff, or the option to buy health insurance at the station’s group rate. As of today, Rijo has taken no action per the LSB motion which speaks volumes about her lack of respect for the majority of KPFA’s programmers. 

More difficult to assess will be the impact of the disrespect management showed the station’s unpaid workers by withdrawing recognition of their organization. There is a story here about worker organizing, and that its a story made more interesting and perhaps more unique by the fact that these workers aren’t even paid. No, their livelihoods are not imperiled. But their passion and the efforts they put into their work, efforts that are often made at great personal sacrifice and due to intense beliefs about the importance of what they do, is being threatened. And as we know, especially in Berkeley, it is often the things that people do around and in between their paycheck gigs, that really does change the world and establish the alternative networks that sustain us in this difficult society. 

Coincidentally, the Rijio memo went out the same day as management at another media institution attacked a union: the Media News Group newspaper chain declared its “derecognition” of the Northern California Media Guild as the representative of employees at Media News Group’s ANG newspapers. But many KPFA listeners and workers plus readers of the Planet will surely be surprised and dismayed that KPFA management engages in the same behavior as the managers of a profit-driven media conglomerate. 

So if we care about alternatives to the mainstream, then we have to care about and value unpaid work. Because precious few of us are ever going to be paid a sustainable wage to do these things. So when an alternative institution like KPFA of 50 plus years duration turns on its heels and says “you’re not real workers”—“you don’t have the privilege of collective bargaining over your working conditions, your supplies and your equipment like the REAL workers", it’s a tremendous slap in the face to people’s blood, sweat and tears, not just at KPFA, but really all the cooperative networks that people build up in their spare time to do important work. If a progressive beacon like KPFA can’t support basic worker organizing in their midst, then who will? 


Tracy Rosenberg is interim director of Media Alliance. Ruthanne Shpiner is KPFA representative to the UPSO council.