• The Hub

    News, Notes, Talk

    PEN America is accused of trying to silence its own workers.

    Dan Sheehan

    March 27, 2024, 10:02am

    In a “whistle-blowing” press release, the staff union at PEN America—PEN America United (PAU)—has accused the free expression organization of attempting to “chill the free expression of its own workers” by proposing language that would see PAU members disciplined for engaging in off-duty political activity:

    PEN America Management’s language chills free expression while asking union members to surrender their rights as workers and renounce a safeguard from retaliation. Sweeping restrictions like these coming from a leading free-expression organization would set a very dangerous precedent for employees everywhere.

    As the press release goes on to detail, this significant internal revolt comes at a time when PEN America is facing intense and sustained criticism from over 600 writers (the number is now north of 1000) for its response to Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza. At the time of writing, more than two dozen authors (including Naomi Klein, Michelle Alexander, Lorrie Moore, and Hisham Matar) have withdrawn from this year’s PEN World Voices Festival for the same reason.

    A representative of the PAU Executive Board told Lit Hub about the numerous attempts made by PEN staff to shift this response, as well as the union’s decision to advocate for its members in this manner:

    PEN America United union members (PAU), alongside non-union staff, have made several internal efforts to shift PEN America’s official response to the conflict in Gaza. Staff have repeatedly pleaded to leadership to take a more humanitarian position that is aligned with other peer institutions and its own mission, and have laid out clear recommendations for moving forward.

    The choice to critique and distance oneself from an organization whose values do not align with one’s own is an expression of free speech which we firmly support. Since October, PAU union members have been made aware of the decisions of several authors and PEN America partners to withdraw from participation in PEN America events and initiatives, including the PEN America World Voices Festival. PEN America indeed wrote in a 3/20 Letter to the Community, that they formally “recognized the importance of dissent in our own ranks.”

    It is within this context that we have continued to push back against PEN America Management’s proposal and advocate for our union members’ right to express themselves.


    Here is today’s press release in full:


    PEN America Staff Union Objects to Management’s Attempt to “Chill Free Expression”

    Amidst widespread criticism of its commitment to protecting free speech, PEN seeks to discipline its own staff for off-hours political activity

    (NEW YORK) – The staff union at PEN America is blowing the whistle on the organization’s attempts to chill the free expression of its own workers—at a time when PEN America is facing mounting outrage from hundreds of prominent authors for its inadequate response on the war in Gaza.

    On March 14, in a bargaining session with PEN America United (PAU), PEN America management proposed vague and broad language under which PAU members could be disciplined for engaging in any political activity that “impacts the ability of PEN America to engage in its mission.” The threat of discipline could extend to activity, conducted off-hours, that management determines could bring negative attention to PEN America.

    Under management’s suggested language, any union member could be subject to discipline for activity such as signing onto an open letter criticizing PEN or attending a protest. Union members may also be subject to discipline for activity conducted off-duty, off-premises, and on their own equipment.

    The Executive Board of PAU has released the following statement:

    PEN America Management’s language chills free expression while asking union members to surrender their rights as workers and renounce a safeguard from retaliation. 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. It is incredibly disappointing to see Management does not respect this internally, despite PEN’s guidance to other organizations.

    If PEN America Management will not advocate for their own staff’s right to engage in political activity off-duty, PAU will.

    Management’s proposed language comes at a time when PEN America is facing criticism from over 600 writers for its stance on Gaza. As of March 15 more than a dozen authors have withdrawn from this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, citing PEN America’s response to the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.


    About PEN America United

    PEN America United is the union representing staff at PEN America, the nonprofit founded in 1922. PAU obtained voluntary recognition in June 2022 and began bargaining for a first contract in October 2022. Members of PAU voted to affiliate with UAW Local 2320, Region 9A in March 2023. April marks the eighteenth month of bargaining for their first contract, and PAU and PEN America have only reached 6 Tentative Agreements out of 25 total proposals.

    Contact: penamericaunited@gmail.com



    In response to the publication of the above, PEN America has provided the following statement:

    While we do not ordinarily comment on ongoing union negotiations, we must speak out to rebut the false claim that PEN America is seeking to chill the political speech of our employees.  In July of 2023 in the course of collective bargaining negotiations with a staff union that had been voluntarily recognized by PEN America, PEN America proposed language relating to political activity that was intended to ensure compliance with our legal obligations as a 501(c)(3) non-partisan organization and the avoidance of conflicts of interest for the organization that could result from an employee playing a public role in a political campaign or running for office. The proposed language was informed by prior experience with a staff member who had launched a campaign for local political office as a partisan candidate while employed at PEN America, an activity that would have involved working hours, raising compliance and conflict of interest concerns for the organization.

    As a free expression organization, we do not interfere with personal, political or other expression of our employees, many of whom are active on social media and other arenas. The proposed contractual language has been under discussion with the union in recent weeks, and we have reiterated our position that the organization does not seek to curtail the political activities of staff, except insofar as they may compromise PEN America’s legal compliance with non-profit law, and thus our mission as well. Our most recent counterproposal read, in full: “PEN America believes in the free expression of employees’ personal religious, political, social, or economic beliefs.  Employees shall not be disciplined for the expression of such beliefs while off-duty, except where such conduct impacts the ability of PEN America to engage in its mission. Notwithstanding the foregoing, PEN America’s policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation shall continue to apply.”  On March 14 in negotiations PEN America management suggested removing the paragraph on political activity entirely and that the collective bargaining agreement include no language at all on the subject.  At that meeting the union indicated it did not wish to delete the provision and that it would counter the proposal, language that management is now awaiting.  We look forward to continuing our negotiation.

  • %d bloggers like this: