Workers Say PEN America Is Slow-Walking Union Negotiations

Unionized employees, pro-Palestine activists demanding a cease-fire call, writers long-listed for a prestigious literary prize: no one seems particularly happy with PEN America right now.

Executive Director of PEN American Suzanne Nossel addresses an audience at Carnegie Hall on March 20, 2024 in New York City. (Al Pereira / Getty Images)

On April 17, workers at PEN America, the largest of the one hundred centers worldwide that comprise PEN International, a century-old organization devoted to the promotion of intellectual cooperation and mutual defense among writers, held a rally outside the organization’s headquarters in lower Manhattan. Decked out in red union shirts, the workers’ chants echoed down Broadway. They were hoping to pressure management to speed up bargaining a first contract, which has now dragged on for eighteen months.

Workers at the PEN America United (PAU) rally spoke to the crowd about low pay at the organization, with one member holding a sign comparing CEO Suzanne Nossel’s $465,000 salary to the $48,500 minimum salary management has proposed at the bargaining table. That’s well below a living wage in New York City and, according to the union, much lower than the current median salary of union members (for perspective, Scholastic, a comparable institution, recently agreed to a wage floor of $65,000).

“Are fair wages banned, too?” read one PAU member’s sign.

According to PAU, management waited nearly six months to offer a counterproposal on wages, both the proposed $48,5000 for the lowest-paid category of union positions and $68,500 for the highest-paid category. The counter followed PEN America greenlighting an independent pay equity analysis that omitted union members from its purview.

“PEN America management’s recent actions reflect what is becoming an appalling pattern of blatant disrespect towards its unionized staff,” said the union in a statement. “Fair wages for PEN America United members has been our top priority since our recognition in 2022 and our commitment to increasing salaries from the bottom up is as strong as ever.”

The union has also filed two unfair labor practices (ULP) against PEN America with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The ULPs concern workers’ just-cause and labor-management committee proposals: workers say the company engaged in “regressive bargaining” with both proposals, meaning they offered less than they had previously, after bringing on Tanya Khan from Kauff McGuire & Margolis, a union-busting law firm, late last year.

Asked about the ULP charges, a spokesperson for PEN America told Jacobin, “With respect to one issue we have reverted back to the old policy so now regard it as moot. With respect to the other we believe it is baseless. We have submitted our responses accordingly to the Regional Office of the NLRB and await response.”

PEN America’s workers unionized in June 2022, voting to affiliate with UAW Local 2320 in March 2023. PEN America employs roughly one hundred people, but it’s top-heavy, and the union only comprises thirty-five employees. Management voluntarily recognized the union, and the two sides began bargaining in October 2022. But nearly two years later, the workers and management have only reached tentative agreements (TAs) on six of twenty-five proposals. Members of the union’s bargaining committee told me that Nossel has not come to any of the bargaining sessions, and that the organization has slow-walked the bargaining process from the start. (In a 2004 Foreign Affairs article, Nossel argued for “standing up” to unionized UN employees, writing, “Reform of the UN bureaucracy must convert the staid civil service into a dynamic professional corps. . . . This will mean standing up to the organization’s staff union, so that top performers can be rewarded and poor ones weeded out.”)

“In the beginning, they would schedule one hour of bargaining once every month or two,” Peris Tushabe, coordinator for PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program and a member of PAU’s bargaining committee, told me of PEN America management. “They were looking to drag this out. We hadn’t affiliated with the UAW yet, and when we’d say we needed more time for bargaining, they’d tell us they were busy, and they’d never schedule the sessions during work hours — which is fine for them at their salaries, but not for us. It was only when we affiliated with the UAW that things finally started to move along.”

“Management never made a formal proposal that bargaining take place outside of working hours,” wrote a PEN America spokesperson in response to this allegation. “When the union sought to bring unlimited numbers of employee-observers to negotiation sessions management said that would need to be during non-working hours to ensure continuity of the organization’s operations.”

Tushabe and the rest of the bargaining committee were heading to a contract-bargaining session following the rally, but they said that they hadn’t received counterproposals or any other material from management in advance of the scheduled session. They also noted that there have been several promotions, hires, and raises granted to nonunion employees in recent months, which union members have been excluded from.

“They told us, ‘If we give you this raise, you forego getting any bargained-upon benefits until the next year,’” Tushabe said. “We accepted it last year because we had just begun bargaining. But they asked us to do that again this year: the ultimatum was, ‘Take the 4 percent annual increase and forfeit your right to receive bargained-upon wages until 2025, or keep bargaining for it and don’t get the increase that the rest of staff is getting.’ We refused to make that choice, so they took it upon themselves to deny us the increases once again.”

“We said, ‘We don’t want to make this choice, because it is an impossible choice,’” added Erica Galluscio, a website administrator at PEN America and a member of PAU’s bargaining committee. We said we weren’t choosing and then we appealed to the board. We emailed Jennifer Finney Boylan, the president, and the board of trustees, and we asked, ‘How can you approve a budget that denies union members raises?’ We received silence in response.”

Several members of the bargaining committee told me that PEN America’s board of trustees hasn’t been responsive to their inquiries. The union’s labor-management cooperation proposal initially included having a worker sit in on board meetings. When that was rejected, they proposed receiving notes from the meetings. That, too, was shot down, with the language deleted entirely.

“They’ve been silent,” Tushabe said of the board. “They don’t answer our emails and we haven’t really received acknowledgement from the board. We don’t know if they’re aware of how slow they’re moving on this. Do they know the things that they’re proposing? Are they okay with how the people who are driving the work of the organization are being treated? How do you feel about the way your employees are being treated and what say do you have?”

PEN America and Gaza

PEN America United’s members aren’t the only ones who have a bone to pick with their employer.

The organization describes itself as standing “at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide.” But as Israel has violated Palestinian writers’ rights — including by executing them in the Gaza Strip — PEN America’s response has been tepid at best.

The destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure makes it hard to get exact numbers, but Israel has killed around a hundred journalists and an enormous number of poets, novelists, and academics since it began its assault on Gaza’s more than two million residents six months ago. The Israel Defense Forces have also systematically destroyed every university in the area. The United States is funding this violence, which has now killed more than thirty-four thousand people.

What is PEN America doing for Gaza’s writers? The nonprofit is quick to point to statements it has made critical of Israel’s violence, but many writers with long-standing ties to the group say that its support for Palestinian writers has been unacceptably lukewarm, particularly when compared to its defense of other besieged writers, such as those in Ukraine.

Writers critical of the organization have pointed to Nossel’s ties to and prior support for Israel (particularly during her previous tenure at the State Department) as the cause of this quiescence. As to how it has affected her current role at the helm of PEN America, consider Nossel’s 2021 criticism of novelist Sally Rooney’s decision to hold off on allowing a Hebrew translation of her latest book in line with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“At PEN America we have a longstanding policy of opposition to cultural and academic boycotts as impediments to the free flow of ideas,” Nossel said at the time. “Given the large segment of the global citizenry living in jurisdictions with policies that may be objectionable and inconsistent with international human rights obligations, restricting publication of books in languages and areas that serve those populations would curtail the role of literature as a catalyst for international understanding and change.”

Yet PEN America supported boycotting Azerbaijan over alleged human rights abuses in 2016, and in 2006, Nossel herself proposed a boycott of Iran. “One alternative that may have some potential include a sports boycott that would exclude soccer-crazed Iran from the World Cup, akin to what was done for apartheid South Africa and Milosevic’s Serbia,” Nossel wrote at the time.

Amid growing criticism of PEN America’s inaction on the issue, last week, the organization canceled its Literary Awards ceremony. The celebration was set to take place in New York City on April 29, and the move came after nine of the ten writers long-listed for the prestigious Jean Stein Award withdrew from consideration over the organization’s inadequate support of Palestinian writers.

They weren’t alone: dozens of writers withdrew from consideration for the event. Esther Allen declined this year’s PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation, and even the four judges of the PEN Translation Prize issued a statement critical of the organization. Allen is one of three cofounders of the World Voices Festival, a PEN America event that was scheduled to take place in New York and Los Angeles next month that, after hemorrhaging participants, was canceled days after the Literary Awards’ cancelation. Announcing the former ceremony’s cancelation, PEN America said that at the request of Stein’s estate, it would donate the $75,000 prize that comes with the award to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund.

When asked about the connections between such turmoil and the contract fight inside the organization, PAU members noted that they’ve encountered particular resistance to a proposal they brought for explicit protections against discipline for members’ political activity outside of work. On March 14, the organization countered with language stating that PAU members would be protected from discipline for engaging in political activity off-hours save for that which “impacts the ability of PEN America to engage in its mission.”

Members believe the vagueness of that clause, which allows management to define what sort of activity impacts PEN America’s ability to “engage in its mission,” undermines protections otherwise secured against discipline for off-hours political activity. The fever pitch of outside criticism of the organization only underscores the necessity of getting such protections in writing. (PEN America management has contested the union’s interpretation of its counterproposal.)

“PEN America management’s language chills free expression while asking union members to surrender their rights as workers and renounce a safeguard from retaliation,” said PAU in a statement. “Sweeping restrictions like these coming from a leading free-expression organization would set a very dangerous precedent for employees everywhere. Given current events, the need for robust protections to employees’ rights to political activity and speech in their personal time is of increased importance.”

As for how the organization’s lackluster support for Palestinian writers affects workers at the company, the Intercept has reported that PEN America staff have been urging the organization to change its position on Israel-Palestine for months, including by endorsing an immediate cease-fire as other PEN chapters as well as PEN International did in October. In speaking with me, union members noted that they’re the ones who must communicate with dissatisfied members of the PEN America community.

“The criticism has made the day-to-day jobs of the unionized workers very difficult,” Galluscio told me. “The people answering the phones and the emails and communicating with writers who are quitting, chapter leaders who are quitting, and donors who are quitting, are the lowest-paid workers. We can’t do anything about PEN America’s official position; all we can do is protect our right to speak our minds off hours, and we just want it to be worth getting screamed at by angry authors.”

A growing number of writers are demanding that Nossel, Boylan (who took over as president last year), and the entire PEN America executive committee resign. (None of this touches upon the fact that incarcerated PEN America prizewinners allege that the organization never paid them for their work, even while fundraising off of it.) Thus far, the organization has only agreed to a review of its work, with Boylan announcing the formation of a working committee “to ensure we are aligned with our mission and make recommendations about how we respond to future conflicts.” As for Nossel, the figure with whom the buck ultimately stops when it comes to pay inequity, organizational dysfunction, and stalled contract negotiations, she remains at the helm.

When I asked PAU members about the demand that PEN America leadership step down, one worker, who requested anonymity to speak about internal matters and whose account two other workers later confirmed to Jacobin, recalled an all-staff meeting during which junior staff brought up criticism of PEN America’s stance on Palestine. The staffers emphasized how a boycott would affect their ability to conduct their work, but Nossel dismissed the concerns.

“I distinctly remember Nossel laughing,” the PAU member told me. “She said something to the effect of, ‘We’ve been boycotted many times, people don’t hold grudges for that long, and this will blow over.’” That was late last year.

We have had many substantive conversations about the current conflict and take seriously the views of staff at all levels,” the PEN America spokesperson told Jacobin.