KPFA workers fight sudden layoffs

BERKELEY, Calif. – Listeners to the Pacifica network’s northern California radio station, KPFA, woke up with a jolt Nov. 9, as they learned that the previous day, Pacifica management had abruptly laid off the entire staff of the station’s highly popular Morning Show, which airs weekdays from 7 to 9 a.m. at 94.1 FM. In taking the action, Pacifica bypassed the local station management and board.

Pacifica claimed the layoffs were necessary to address the station’s financial crisis, but the union and the workers it represents charged they violated the union contract.

Workers and their supporters also pointed out that targeting staff of the program that raises the most funds for the station makes no fiscal sense.

KPFA, which went on the air in 1949, is the nation’s first listener-supported radio station. Based in Berkeley, it is heard throughout northern and central California.

Arlene Engelhardt, executive director of KPFA’s owner, the Pacifica Foundation, had intended to substitute piped-in programming from another Pacifica station. Instead, displaced Morning Show hosts Brian Edwards-Tiekert and Aimee Allison, along with KPFA news co-director Aileen Alfandary (who has not been laid off) hosted a two-hour discussion with participation by Engelhardt, Pacifica’s chief financial officer LaVarn Williams, KPFA historians and former program hosts – and many calls from outraged listeners.

Also joining the program was Christina Huggins, executive vice president of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9415, which represents the station’s paid staff. The local has filed unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board over Pacifica’s violation of the union contract, including its refusal to bargain over financial alternatives before imposing employee layoffs.

While the financial crisis is real, Huggins said, it cannot override the contract’s provisions for how layoffs are to be carried out. Sunday Show host and union steward Philip Maldari added that under the contract, they can only be considered when no other way exists to find needed funds. He noted that the layoffs violated seniority principles by targeting individuals instead of specifying positions.

Photo: Marilyn Bechtel

The union workers, with support of the local station management and board, have proposed an alternative Sustainable Budget they say would save over $250,000. Their proposals, which are supported by KPFA’s local management and station board, include sharing costs for program expenses, cutting bureaucratic overhead and lowering meeting costs of Pacifica’s board of directors. The workers say this would preserve local programming, rebalance fiscal relations between the station and Pacifica and maintain the station’s fundraising prospects as the economy recovers.

Pacifica has refused to discuss the alternative budget. Before the Morning Show layoffs were announced, it had been reported Pacifica was considering cuts that would eliminate about one-fourth of the union workers including staff members responsible for other locally-produced programs including the Evening News, Against the Grain and Hard Knock Radio.

A spirited noontime informational picket and rally Nov. 4 brought over 150 listeners, members of KPFA’s volunteer staff and community supporters to Pacifica’s front door.

Amid chants of “Chop from the top” and “Where’s the money?” speakers called on rally participants to tell Pacifica executive director Engelhardt that they want community-based programs to continue, and to urge Pacifica to respond to the workers’ proposals.

Both the Alameda and San Francisco Labor Councils have unanimously passed strong resolutions supporting the workers. Their resolutions condemned “blatant anti-union actions” by Pacifica’s board – among them “getting involved in personnel matters including making individual name recommendations for layoffs” as well as violating the existing collective bargaining agreement.

The Pacifica Radio Network, an independent, nonprofit organization, operates four other stations – KPFK in Los Angeles, WBAI in New York City, KPFT in Houston, and WPFW in Washington DC.

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Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe para People's World desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.