No Union Label at a PEN Gala

Picket Lines Are Labor’s Free Speech

 Refusing to hire a person just because he belongs to a union is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. [Local 6, Hotel, Restaurant and Club Employees Union] has filed that charge with the National Labor Relations Board [against the Ciprianis].

—Juan Gonzalez, Daily News, March 19

Before continuing with how a justly renowned free-expression organization—PEN American Center—held its annual gala fundraiser at a Cipriani catering hall being picketed by workers who had been fired for the free expression of joining a union, I ought to tell you where I'm coming from on this story.

I organized my first shop—a "chain" of two candy stores where I worked in Boston—when I was 15. I called a strike for a month before Christmas, a period when Sunday's Candies got much of its annual business in bulk orders from a lot of companies. We got a raise without a strike.

Four years later, I helped organize a radio station, WMEX in Boston, where I was a staff announcer and sports broadcaster. Later, Jules Feiffer, Howard Smith, and I tried to organize the Voice. We were unsuccessful for a long time—until, at last, the most effective organizer I've ever seen came along and did the job.

As soon as Rupert Murdoch bought the Voice years ago, a long stream of its workers walked down to then District 65 at Astor Place to signify their desire to join the union. They knew that Murdoch utterly controlled his properties and that he had extirpated a union attempting to take root at one of his papers in London.

I continue to belong to two unions—the one at the Voice and AFTRA (the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists). And in the early years of the Voice union, I was on the negotiating committee at contract time. So I am not dispassionate on the subject of the right to organize—and to picket.

Aware of criticism about its decision to cross Local 6's picket line, PEN produced a statement, which it circulated to the guests at its annual fundraising gala and released to the press. That document admitted that PEN had first heard of the dispute between Local 6 and the Cipriani organization before the scheduled event.

But, the statement went on, PEN "had been under contract with Cipriani for almost five months and had paid them substantial fees toward costs of this event....A move to another location on less than 48 hours' notice was unfeasible; cancellation of the event would have jeopardized the financial survival of the organization."

PEN added that it vigorously supports workers' "rights to organize and bargain with their employers and to express their views freely and fully."

Yet PEN repeatedly asked Local 6 to withdraw its picket line that night out of respect for PEN's value and stature as a worldwide free-speech organization. John Turchiano of Local 6 asked PEN's executive director, Michael Roberts, if the organization respects the free-expression rights of the 250 employees who had been fired for belonging to the union. A picket line is often labor's only way to get its message through.

To begin with, how was it possible that PEN had only just learned of this famous labor dispute when during the previous four months it had been widely covered in the New York dailies, The New York Observer, and channels 2, 4, 9, and 11, along with NY1? Does no one at the offices of PEN read the newspapers or watch television news?

During my conversation with Michael Roberts of PEN, he did say, after a while, that someone had shown him, by early February, the January 25 New York Observer article on the Ciprianis' war against Local 6.

Moreover, John Turchiano of Local 6 told me that, three weeks before the PEN gala, he twice left phone messages at PEN, telling the organization that the picket line would be there. No one called back. But Roberts says there is no record of Turchiano's messages having been received.

Turchiano did reach Roberts on the Monday before the gala and said he would be willing to help relocate the event. Turchiano then called the Waldorf-Astoria, which said it might be able to accommodate PEN, even on such short notice. Turchiano tells me he told Roberts that, but Roberts says he was never informed of the Waldorf-Astoria option.

I have come to know John Turchiano, and other reporters who know him say they believe what he tells them. So do I.

Michael Roberts claims that two days before the event he told Turchiano that he would invite the picketers inside the gala and turn it into a "pep rally" for the union. The workers could then have informed the assemblage of their grievances against the Ciprianis.

But Turchiano says that while Roberts declared he had a number of ideas that might persuade Local 6 to take down the picket line, he "never mentioned inviting us in to make our case."

Consider this. If that invitation had been made, and if it had included the 80 or so picketers outside, it would have been accepted and there would have been no picket line because the men and women on the line would have been in the room stating their case.

At the very least, PEN should now let Local 6 tell its story, by mail, to all its members and to everyone who attended the gala. And maybe some PEN members might want to join the picket line. They would be welcomed.

 
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