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Should the Guild be politically active?

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Your votes on Feb. 21 will matter 

Dear Guild Brothers and Sisters,

You will be asked, at the joint meeting of the Executive Committee, Representative Assembly and General Membership on Feb. 21, to vote on whether our Local should be permitted to take public positions on political issues.

And if you vote in the affirmative, you’ll then be asked to decide if our Local oppose legislation giving the President fast-track authority to approve U.S. participation in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement among nations on the Pacific Rim, and whether we should urge U.S. senators and representatives from states and districts in our Local’s geographic constituency to vote down fast-track authority legislation.

Many of our journalist members argue that speaking publicly on political issues violates professional ethics. One of them, Derrick DePledge, has drafted a proposed bylaws provision that would bar the Local from such involvement but allow individual units to speak out. Brother DePledge recently stepped aside as the Local’s Hawaii vice president because he has relocated to Astoria, Ore.

Apparently, most of our journalist members hold another view: that the Local may and should speak publicly on matters – especially those relating to press freedom and government transparency – whose outcomes affect their ability to do their job. And that sentiment underlies a bylaws statement being proposed by the Legislative and Political Committee (LPC) comprising Local Vice President Gloria LaRiva, Paul Burton and yours truly.

Here is Brother DePledge’s draft:

The Guild, which predominantly represents working journalists, shall refrain from intervening in partisan politics, policy debates, social causes and public controversies.

This policy is consistent with the standards expected of working journalists at the news organizations with which the Guild has collective bargaining agreements.

This policy also mirrors the ethical guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists, which instructs journalists to act independently and to avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.

Notwithstanding this policy, individual units of the Guild, such as court interpreters, sign language interpreters, and union staff, may intervene in partisan politics, policy debates, social causes and public controversies subject to approval by the Executive Committee.

These units have their own standards and ethical guidelines that are distinct from working journalists and may have legitimate interest in political and legislative advocacy.

Respectfully, I take issue with Brother DePledge’s statement that his proposed policy “mirrors the ethical guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists.” The particular guideline in SPJ’s Code of Ethics is aimed at individual reporters and editors, not necessarily at journalists’ organizations.

In fact, SPJ has spoken out numerous times. The society contributed $30,000 to the legal defense of freelance video-journalist Josh Wolf, who was incarcerated for eight months for refusing to surrender raw footage of an anarchists’ demonstration and to testify on same to a federal grand jury. And last year, both SPJ’s Northern California chapter and our Local endorsed a ballot measure broadening the authority and boosting the resources of Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission.

What is more, as veteran journalist Peter Sussman, who played a major role in shaping SPJ’s Code of Ethics, points out, “the Guild isn’t a journalism organization; it’s a labor organization. They take all kinds of positions that a journalist covering that beat couldn’t utter without compromising his or her perceived conflict of interest.”

“Of course,” he adds, “(the Guild) shouldn’t get too far from their journalist advocacy role lest they put their members in possibly awkward positions.”

He notes also, “SPJ’s code explicitly urges journalists to ‘Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.’”

We in the LPC believe, thus, that the bylaw provision we have drafted is reasonable, enabling our Local to speak publicly when we think circumstances call for it while safeguarding our individual members’ integrity and credibility. We offer it herewith:

The Pacific Media Workers Guild represents staff and freelance workers in journalism, language translation/interpretation and other communications-intensive professions.

The PMWG recognizes that professional ethics proscribes reporters and most editors from taking public positions in candidate races and in most public-policy debates.

At the same time, the PMWG is duty-bound to fight for the interests of its members, whether that be in negotiations with employers, in litigation, in a seat of government or in the public forum.

Accordingly, the PMWG General Membership adopts the following as policy:

  1. The PMWG may take public positions on public-policy issues whose outcomes directly and significantly affect members’ ability to do their jobs.
  1. On any such public-policy issue or resolution, those voting shall state that they want the PMWG to “support,” to “oppose” or to take “no position.” If a majority of votes are for “no position,” that shall be the PMWG’s official stance on that issue or resolution. If less than a majority of votes are for “no position,” the “support” and “oppose” vote counts shall determine the PMWG’s official stance.
  1. When the PMWG declines to take a public position on a public-policy matter, each PMWG unit may adopt a public stance but shall make clear that said stance represents the position of the unit only.
  1. Any PMWG unit or member may publicly dissent from a public stance taken by the PMWG on a public-policy matter.

If any of the foregoing violates federal, state or local law or regulation, or the policy of The NewsGuild or the Communications Workers of America, the non-violative portions shall remain in effect.

At the Feb. 21 meeting, you will be asked first if you believe any bylaw revision is necessary. If the majority votes yes, you will be asked to choose between the LPC’s and Brother DePledge’s drafts.

Regarding the TPP, there is the question of whether our Local wants to oppose it outright, to object to it on procedural grounds or to remain silent. Bernie Lunzer, the president of The NewsGuild, our parent Union, told me recently that he was “about to write all of our local presidents asking them to write their Congress people to oppose both fast-track (now being called ‘trade authority’) and the TPP itself.” Sister LaRiva and Brother Burton agree with him.

“[T]he TPP is more about our lives, the issue of jobs for all workers, and the disaster that the AFL-CIO has described if it were to pass,” Sister LaRiva argues. “I believe we ought to oppose TPP primarily because of the strong position that labor has taken.”

Brother Burton agrees, saying our Local “should oppose the TPP and fast-track not just because it impacts our work but because it would be a disaster for many workers, and organized labor has taken a strong stand against fast-track and voiced opposition to the TPP as it now exists (maybe it could be improved and ‘labor and environmental standards’ could be included or strengthened if it is debated openly). The secrecy issue is important, as well as the concern about bypassing Congressional authority.”

He added, however, “I don’t think we should be engaged in lobbying Congress, except for legislation that does directly impact our work (shield laws, public records access, freedom of information).”

My own view is that we should object to the secrecy of TPP negotiations and we should publicly ask whether fast-track authorization would be wise, since it would bypass the Constitutionally prescribed process of approving trade agreements. Opposing the TPP outright might well breach the above-discussed ethical boundary.

On Feb. 21, it will be up to you, Brothers and Sisters. Please weigh all of the above carefully and feel free to send me your thoughts, at rak0408 @ earthlink.net, between now and then.

In solidarity,

Richard Knee

PMWG Legislative and Political Committee Chair

Kat Anderson

Kat Anderson

Pacific Media Workers Guild Administrative Officer/Business Agent, founder of Bay News Rising mentorship program for college journalism students and editor of mediaworkers.org.

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