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How Digital Media Unionization Can—and Can’t—Strengthen the Labor Movement

Scott Olson/Getty

Journalists like writing about journalism, so the dimensions of the industry’s decline are no secret. Across the country, news organizations are contracting—as of last week, Bloomberg was slated to lay off 100 editorial employees, or a full 4.2 percent of its workforce—and so is the job market for recent graduates. (Especially for minorities, it should go without saying.) Industry wages have fallen below the national average, even as soaring living costs render media hubs like New York and Washington, DC increasingly unaffordable. As Jezebel’s Anna Merlan put it, of the supposedly thriving digital media industry: “We’re in a very good place right now. But we also exist in a bubble. When it bursts, I’d like us to have fair labor practices in place.”

Organized labor in the U.S.—that historical protector of the middle class—is in a similarly weakened position; and, over the last year, the two have entered into a mutually beneficial relationship. In April, editorial staffers at Gawker announced they were considering unionizing, which they eventually elected to do in June. By early August, workers at Salon, Guardian US, and Vice had followed suit. The next week, the founders of Upworthy and BuzzFeed held meetings intended to discourage their employees from organizing. The week after that, Mike Elk, a labor reporter and self-described “union organizer,” was let go from Politico. The union organizers I spoke with tell me they are already engaging workers at other digital outlets; in the coming months, we can expect more stories like these.

According to The New York Times, this unionization trend is a “sign of maturity in a previously anarchic sector, defined by its start-up sensibility and employees’ youth.” In truth, it has less to do with the maturation of digital media than the volatility of journalism in general. Labor in the online newsroom, to say nothing of labor on its fringes, is precarious in many of the same ways as labor in the rest of the globalized—and, now, gig-ified—economy. And this is where the true potential of media unionization lies: Not simply in the power of dues-paying bloggers to influence the zeitgeist from the top down, but in the opportunity the unions themselves have to redefine, from the bottom up, what rights are worth fighting for in the modern workplace.

Labor organizing is still new to digital media, but its sudden emergence isn’t without precedent. “Each time there’s been a technological change [in the economy], there’s been upheaval,” said Kim Fellner, the associate director of Working America, a grassroots community organizing group. The advent of assembly-line auto factories, for example, was a key driver of the 20th century labor movement. The internet, she said, is a similarly groundbreaking advance, “and it brings with it a huge challenge and opportunity for innovation and the restructuring” of organized labor. “Unions tend to, much more than they’re given credit for, innovate and expand their membership over time,” said Fellner, who has also been a longtime organizer with the Service Employees International Union, the U.S.’s second largest, and National Writers Union (NWU), among others.

This latest series of unionization efforts is indicative of that evolution. “What we wanted to do was learn about how digital technology was transforming the way stories are crafted and distributed,” said Lowell Peterson, the executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, which now represents editorial staff at Gawker, Salon, and Vice. “We reached out to a lot of people—we started going to a lot of conferences and having coffee with as many digital content creators as we could.” Credited with setting off a chain reaction in the industry, Gawker’s organizing campaign was a direct result of those conversations. (WGAE Organizing Director Justin Molito told me that the union had actually been talking informally with Vice editorial staff prior to the Gawker vote.)  

Labor veterans consulted for this article described the digital media organizing process as remarkably quick and painless. But that’s just in comparison to the sort of protracted trench warfare that has come to define labor relations. Two months after voting itself into existence, the Gawker union has yet to settle on a concrete negotiation agenda. The Vice staffers who, last week, met to discuss negotiation strategy ahead of collective bargaining have many hours of talking to look forward to before the promise of unionization becomes a contractual reality.

What they will be talking about, in a limited but nonetheless important sense, is the future of the labor movement. What benefits are we entitled to? How much say do we need to have in administrative decision-making? When do those long, late-night hours hunched over the keyboard become billable as overtime? Does our responsibility stop at the last name on our union roster? Or do we stand for something bigger, for someone who may never contribute to our treasury? These are questions any union must decide for itself. But they are questions being asked across the digital economy, which lends additional weight to the answers the new media unions come up with.

Here’s a bit of perspective. If every editorial employee in every digital newsroom in the country were to unionize tomorrow, it would barely register on the next Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. Decades of union-busting, outsourcing, legislative rollback, and judicial revisionism have gutted union membership nationwide, including among media outlets. Today, just 11.1 percent of workers in the United States are unionized, down from over 34 percent in 1954. Combined, Gawker, Salon, Guardian US, and Vice are contributing fewer than 300 people to those depleted ranks, a “drop in the bucket,” as Huffington Post labor reporter Dave Jamieson put it in a phone interview.  

Even within their respective publications, the newly minted unions only comprise a small portion of the total labor force. “These campaigns have been fairly targeted to editorial employees,” explained Jamieson, “and obviously there’s a lot more than just that that goes into building these sites.” At Vice, writers and editors make up less than 10 percent of all staff, according to The Wall Street Journal. And as Vice itself has reported, staff is not a comprehensive measure. The media landscape encompasses—and, to varying degrees, depends on—a vast pool of irregular labor, be it in the form of freelance photography or the much-maligned internship. As far as U.S. law is concerned, these “independent contractors” don’t have collective labor rights, much less the ability to force management to negotiate them.

What we have, then, is a handful of well-educated, highly skilled office workers, many of whom come from upper-class backgrounds to begin with, banding together to improve a set of labor conditions that even they will admit are generally favorable. No one could conflate that with a grassroots uprising, but it’s possible that dismissing digital media unionization offhand for not being sufficiently blue collar or widespread misses the point. The image many Americans have of the coal-stained picket-liner hasn’t been representative of the labor movement for several decades, to the extent it ever was. And digital media unions may be valuable precisely because of the elite status of their members. 

To some, it certainly will be tempting to look at these young, tuned-in social and political commentators as the intellectual liaisons of the next generation labor movement—“an opportunity,” said Richard Trumka, the president of the U.S.’ largest workers federation, the AFL-CIO, in a statement released after the Gawker vote, “for workers to have a strong voice in our ever-changing digital economy.” Reporters “have the habit of somehow seeing ourselves on the sideline of the economy, just observing it and reporting on it,” Jamieson explained. But at the end of the day, “a lot of journalists have the same basic concerns as factory workers, or home care workers, or other types of people who traditionally turn to labor unions in this country.” The thinking goes that, as new media journalists become aware of those common concerns and take steps to address them in their own professional lives, it will invariably affect the way they think, write, and speak about the underlying issues.

Already, you can see this positive reinforcement loop taking shape. Coinciding with the rise of post-recession populism, several major news outlets have moved to strengthen their labor coverage, the reporting of which has fallen in parallel with the labor movement. Politico cited that lack of content last fall, when it created the subscription-based labor vertical from which Mike Elk was later dropped. The Washington Post hired Lydia DePillis, who belatedly joined NewsGuild this year both in reaction to “harsh” cutback proposals from management and out of a desire to become a “better labor reporter.”

“As people who are societal communicators have this experience for themselves, they will bring new insights to the experiences of other workers when they talk about them in the public space,”  Fellner, the longtime labor organizer, told me. “When people of some privilege make common cause with those who labor for little, things change.”

Whatever the values of its journalists, the American newsroom is far from a progressive workplace. Today, there are 40 percent fewer black reporters working in media than there were in 1997. Women account for just 36 percent of newsroom staff, which is roughly the same proportion as in 1999. Opinion columns and talkshow invitations are bestowed, overwhelmingly, on old, white men. The bylines in Vanity Fair’s upcoming “Trans America” edition do not appear to include a single transgender writer. Proponents of unionization rightly point out that these disparities are baked into media labor systems, that unsustainable entry-level working conditions act as barriers to all but the affluent, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, and male.

Unionization alone, independent of what form it takes, will help ameliorate some of these divides. Within individual workplaces and across the economy in general, organized labor benefits union and nonunion workers alike, by driving up wages and securing the generalized improvement of labor conditions. In regards to race and gender, as well, unions—which, like any institution in America, do carry their own histories of prejudice—have had a noted equalizing effect.

“Unions have been one of the largest forces of upward mobility for women and people of color in this country,” said Fellner, who points to the role of public sector unions in inserting women into the workplace and propping up the now-beleaguered black middle class. Collective bargaining, she explained, allows for “the codifying of racial and gender dignity in contract language... It is part of what becomes negotiable, and that in itself changes workplaces.” When the rules governing promotions, raises, and hiring and firing practices are transparent and mutually enforceable, “it also makes the responsibility collective, so that you don’t force the three women or two people of color to bear the whole weight” of workplace discrimination. “The collective bears the weight, and that’s an important and powerful thing,” Fellner said.

There’s an element of complacency to the notion that, through the mere fact of their existence, new media unions have accomplished something significant. But the transitive properties of a unionized workplace will not be enough to substantively alter the exclusionary makeup of the journalism, nor will a spillover of empathy from America’s Thought Leaders do much to reverse the longstanding plight of organized labor.

Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan has framed the unionization trend as a litmus test of liberal media’s convictions. Which is fair, so long as collective bargaining can also be held up as a test of organized labor’s. “I've always thought journalism needs to do a better job,” Nolan said via email, “particularly in casting a wider net in entry-level hiring, so that all types of people from all types of places and demographics can get these jobs...So the unions should promote that to the extent possible, as well as promoting livable wages for entry level journalists so that you don't have to be independently wealthy to get into this.”

Again, it’s up to the media unions to decide how committed they are to those principles. But the precedents they set in their upcoming negotiations have implications that extend beyond the newsroom. “We’ve been used to thinking about it as the staff people and then the freelancers, but we are in some ways becoming a nation of freelancers, and so it’s all the more important that we think about how people who work in different kinds of situations are represented and how they actually do get some voice and power,” Fellner said. In their journalism, digital media unions have a platform to discuss labor issues. In their organizing, they have a chance to put those ideas into practice. The one is only as important as the other.