BBG Watch Commentary
American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812 union known for winning lawsuits to save numerous jobs and broadcasts at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has came under pressure from a small group of Voice of America (VOA) English Newsroom reporters — as compared to the rest of the union membership — for supporting the H.R. 4490 bipartisan reform bill designed, among other things, to prevent BBG executives from privatizing the VOA workforce and deny it federal employment protections and benefits.
The bill, introduced on April 28, 2014 by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), was approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
A new article in The New York Times explains the controversy.
READ MORE: Journalists at Odds With Union Over Role of Voice of America, Ron Nixon, The New York Times, July 2, 2014.
BBG Watch Commentary
AFGE Local 1812 has always enjoyed strong support of VOA language services employees who constitute the vast majority of VOA staff. According to anecdotal evidence, VOA foreign language services largely support the H.R. 4490 legislation and see it as protecting their jobs and VOA’s future.
There have always been tensions between VOA language services employees and the VOA English Newsroom employees, with VOA foreign language service journalists often expressing their dissatisfaction with VOA English news and claiming that they are paid less for doing journalistic work that requires fluency in at least two languages and knowledge of foreign cultures. For decades, VOA foreign language services were denied by the management access to wire service news, but this had changed with the arrival of the Internet.
With only a few exceptions, most VOA English Newsroom employees were never particularly active in the union despite seeing their jobs decimated by the management, a union source told BBG Watch.
AFGE 1812 over the years fought layoffs proposed by BBG/IBB/VOA management, battled to maintain shortwave broadcasts, fought cuts to English broadcasting and broadcasting to China, Tibet and other regions, and fought on the issue of Agency hiring of non-U.S. citizens over U.S. citizens, another source observed. AFGE Local 1812 has won recently a major legal battle to save the jobs of illegally RIFed Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB – Radio and TV Marti) broadcasters, although the management still has not given them their jobs back.
Opposition to the bipartisan reform bill appears to be centered among VOA English Newsroom employees with greater seniority and those who had or still have limited U.S. Foreign Service appointments as former or current VOA foreign correspondents, but some other VOA English Newsroom and VOA English Programs employees have joined them as well.
Among VOA English News reporters, a few senior staffers appear to be most opposed to the Royce – Engel bill despite their privileged position within VOA and their former or current Foreign Service limited appointment employment status.
According to one source, some of these VOA English News reporters were content allowing AFGE 1812 to fight various battles, but preferred not to get any closer to the union, for fear that doing so would jeopardize their relations with management, including their own chances for advancement.
These U.S. federal government employees in the VOA English Newsroom claim that the bipartisan reform bill, which they call “Propaganda Express” or the “Propaganda Bill” would turn them into propaganda tools of the U.S. government.
Their critics argue that these fears are unfounded and that these reporters themselves would like to change the VOA Charter, the current law, which already requires them to comprehensively report on and explain U.S. policies — something they apparently do not like do do because it makes them appear less than fully independent. Members of Congress became concerned that the VOA management was not fulfilling its obligations under the VOA Charter, especially the Charter’s provisions on reporting on and explaining U.S. policies and on any debates in the United States related to these policies.
The AFGE Local 1812, while expressing its strong support for the bill, especially its management reforms provision, is in fact also strongly supporting revisions in the text of the legislation to strengthen protection for the VOA Charter and unbiased journalism.
For more on the controversy READ: Is Congress trying to neuter Voice of America’s journalism or save it?, BBG Watch, July 1, 2014.
In Section 2 of the proposed legislation, which the Union distributed at a recent Union General Membership Meeting, Congress lists the reasons why this legislation is necessary and why it believes the Agency has become dysfunctional and defunct. In describing the state of U.S. international broadcasting in testimony at a congressional hearing, Secretary of State Clinton said that the BBG was “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”
Neither the Union nor the members in attendance at the General Membership meeting disputed any of the 19 points in Section 2 – Findings and Declarations – of the House Bill. However, as we wrote in our editorial on the Union website, which was endorsed unanimously by the Executive Board, we do have some reservations and have expressed our thoughts to Congress: that any proposed legislation must include stronger language to protect the journalistic integrity of our news broadcasts and stress the importance of Article #1 of the VOA Charter: to provide accurate, objective and comprehensive news.
Signed into law in July 1976, the VOA Charter contains two other provisions which govern VOA programming. Article #2 mandates that VOA program should reflect American ideals, thoughts and institutions and Article #3 deals with the responsible discussion of US foreign policy.
The Union welcomes the opportunity to provide input to those who are crafting the legislation to correct the long-standing problems in this Agency. In creating this legislation, Congress considered several options:
1) defederalization of the workforce (supported by many in management and vigorously opposed by the Union);
2) absorption of the broadcasting function into the Public Diplomacy Office of the State Department which the Union did not believe was the best option;
3) dissolving VOA entirely as a relic of the Cold War.
The present legislation protects the federal status of the employees we represent and ensures that the Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting will continue to be part of America’s broadcasting voice to the world.
The legislation also addresses the long-standing problems with management bloat, contracting-out illegal actions, low employee morale – issues that the Union has consistently presented to Congress and which have been verified in OIG and GAO reports and OPM Human Capital surveys.
Over the past decade, together with the employees, the Union has fought annual RIFs (reductions-in-force) proposed to Congress by Agency management. It has fought to preserve English-language broadcasts, to continue shortwave broadcasts and keep open the Murrow Transmitter in NC and to stop drastic cuts to VOA China and many other language services. Just two years ago, in its budget submission, the Agency proposed cutting almost 200 broadcasting positions. Congress would not allow it. Throughout, your Union has continued to represent employee views in Congress and issued appeals to keep VOA and OCB alive.
In supporting this legislation, the Union was battling not only for jobs but also for the preservation of the mission of VOA. An important part of that mission has always been and should remain: the broadcast of accurate, objective and comprehensive news.
Members of both parties have participated in the creation of this legislation. It is both bi-partisan and bi-cameral. Those who have worked on this Bill have spent a lot of time and effort on it and are sincerely trying to get it right. In view of what has happened to U.S. international broadcasting over the past decade, Congress, which is responsible for funding international broadcasting, has decided that a reorganization is necessary. As we believe that passage of a reform bill is almost a certainty in the FY2015 legislative session, we endorse this first attempt, with a few reservations, at reforming U.S. international broadcasting.
For more information on the proposed bill, please check: http://www.foreignaffairs.house/broadcasting.
We welcome comments by our members regarding this landmark legislation.