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

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 As of March 15 more than a dozen authors have withdrawn from this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, citing PEN America’s response to the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.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.

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