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The Myth of the Progressive Boss

Cenk Uygur talked a good game about The Young Turks being the premier progressive media outlet. Then his staff tried to unionize.

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Five years ago, the labor movement got an unexpected shot in the arm thanks to a bunch of angry bloggers. When workers at the smart, snarky digital news outlet Gawker went public with their organizing drive and unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East, they set a vital new precedent in an exploitative, unstable industry. The floodgates opened in digital journalism throughout the United States, with shop after shop joining the movement and swelling the WGAE’s ranks by 1,500 new members since the Gawker action. The new organizing also isn’t confined to digital-only workplaces—WGAE organizers are currently mounting a drive at corporate media behemoth Hearst—or to one union, as the News Guild of New York has also helped organized digital shops, including The New Republic’s.

In those early days, recognition came fairly easily. Not long after Gawker’s successful organizing drive in 2015, Vice’s editorial workers unionized in an initial bargaining unit of 80. (Full disclosure: I was working at Vice at the time and took part in this drive.) By 2018, more than 400 workers in the company’s TV and production arms joined the company’s WGAE chapter. It made sense that Vice and its sibling hip, public-facing brands would want to project an image of magnanimity toward their employees, who were paid bargain-basement salaries and worked in conditions that were often chaotic, if not actively harmful. Voluntarily recognizing the union was also something of a P.R. asset for companies such as Vice and Gawker Media: a fairly cost-effective way to burnish a media outlet’s image.

Thanks to these considerations, the Gawker and Vice drives resulted in swift and fairly amicable recognition from management. But that, along with much else, has changed for the worse in the organizing trenches of the media industry. What had been an exhilarating initial surge has now become an exhausting slog. Protracted, hard-fought struggles for recognition have become a rule rather than an exception. Nominally progressive media outlets twisted themselves into knots to avoid recognizing their workers’ right to organize. Management at Slate and Thrillist took months to recognize the union (with the latter spurring the industry’s first strike); MTV News laid off its entire staff mid-negotiations; DNAinfo and Gothamist were spitefully shuttered by their new feckless billionaire owner, Joe Ricketts, shortly after they won recognition. Hearst is currently embroiled in an embarrassing union-busting disaster of its own making.

BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti drew plenty of scorn for his public anti-union stance—and proceeded to drag out the company’s eventual recognition of the BuzzFeed News Union for months, prompting the workers to stage a four-city work stoppage to force the issue in 2019.

Digital media’s cousins in the tech industry have faced a slog of their own as they’ve sought to organize in the libertarian coding farms of Silicon Valley. Tesla founder Elon Musk swiftly abandoned his benevolent billionaire shtick once his notoriously exploited workforce began to consider unionizing. Google’s attempts to quash organizing on its home turf have been a thumb in the eye to its original “don’t be evil” ethos. Workers at Kickstarter began organizing in secret back in early 2019 but were hardly greeted in a spirit of collaborative enterprise once they went public: Two organizers allege that they were fired as a result, and two others on the organizing committee left in the midst of the turmoil. (They finally won their union on February 18, 2020, but only after the company forced them to undergo a National Labor Relations Board secret ballot election.)

During the campaign, Kickstarter’s community of creators came out strongly in support of the union and denounced the company’s actions; more than 400 of the site’s high-profile users signed a letter of support calling for the company to respect its workers’ decision, and many vowed to boycott the platform until the union was recognized. This kind of public pressure serves a purpose—to show the boss that what’s done in the dark will always come to light, especially in the age of social media. Intimidating rich people into doing the right thing is a risky tactic but one that’s paid off handsomely throughout the labor movement’s long, bloody history. Once, workers used dynamite and mass work stoppages to get the message across. Now we have the ratio.

This more bitter and confrontational chapter in digital-age organizing came to a head in the high-profile battle to win union recognition at the self-styled progressive news network The Young Turks. Last month, production and post-production workers at TYT announced that they were unionizing with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The network’s management responded with a bid to shut down the organizing drive before it had a chance to get off the ground, refusing to extend voluntary recognition to the workers looking to affiliate with IATSE. And as if to drive the point home, TYT co-founder Cenk Uygur went out of his way to discourage the union drive during a staff meeting. (Attempts to reach Uygur for timely comment on the conflict were unsuccessful.)

What’s behind this rigid managerial opposition to labor organizing at a company otherwise eager to advertise its “progressive” bona fides at every opportunity? HuffPost reported that the company’s executives adopted that old chestnut company managers have used to tamp down union activity since the nineteenth century: They simply can’t afford to pay their workers better or to give them better benefits and longer-term job security. In 2017, the company raised $20 million in venture capital and doubled its staff, but Uygur, who described himself as a supporter of unions, said that the company is still in a “precarious” position. “We’re in a digital media landscape where almost no one makes money or is sustainable,” he told HuffPost reporter Dave Jamieson. “For a smaller digital media company, those are absolutely real considerations. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a union.”

This phrasing didn’t sit well with many on the left. As Jacobin assistant editor Alex Press pointed out on Twitter, the socialist publication has a much smaller staff and budget than TYT but unionized back in 2016. As she said when the organizers finalized their first contract in 2018, “I hope the existence of our union at Jacobin serves to rebuke any boss elsewhere who claims his or her publication can’t afford a union.” That rebuke came swiftly, in TYT’s case, as the company’s hard-line anti-union posture won it a slew of adverse media coverage—and as Uygur continued digging himself into a hole via a string of increasingly combative social media pronouncements on the conflict. Now the union-busting story is in danger of eclipsing the actual union drive.

TYT has come under fire for maintaining dodgy working conditions in the past. In 2018, a former employee filed a racial discrimination claim against the company. The current and former employees I’ve interviewed say that one of the most pressing issues behind the campaign was putting the values TYT espouses on screen into practice in its workplace. Hank Thompson, a former employee who held various positions at the network between 2013 and 2020 (including caring for the office lizard), told me, “We’d edit stories about worker rights and unions and strikes and the crime of low wages and the little guy getting screwed and the importance of standing up for yourself, so if anyone planted the seed, it was Cenk himself.”

A further snarl appeared when Uygur accused IATSE of trying to sabotage his California congressional run against former Representative Katie Hill. He is challenging California Assemblywoman Christy Smith from the left, but the campaign has run into trouble from the start (even before Senator Bernie Sanders pulled his endorsement following public outcry over Uygur’s past inflammatory sexist and racist comments). When he called the timing of the unionization announcement into question on Twitter, intimating a conspiracy against him because IATSE had previously endorsed his opponent, organizers offered a quick rejoinder.

Thompson recalls conversations about the IATSE drive beginning “three or four months” before Uygur announced his candidacy. And a current employee, who asked to remain anonymous due to worries about retaliation, notes that the present unionizing effort is far from the first among TYT workers. The announcement, this worker said, followed the natural timeline of the organizing process. That TYT’s workers would unionize eventually seemed inevitable: As Thompson said, “TYT is staffed by liberals, progressives, and lefties—of course the notion of organizing to demand better would come up. Who did Cenk think would come work for him?”

“We’ve had talks on and off for quite some time and even attempted an [organizing] effort two years ago, but due to layoffs, we stopped,” the anonymous staffer explained. “Seeing things didn’t change for the better, we renewed our efforts, and we contacted IATSE again in the first week of November 2019. Any accusations that have been made of IATSE in regard to Cenk’s campaign [are] plain wrong and slanderous. Their accusations make it about them, not us as workers.”

Now that the organizing drive at TYT is public, it’s unclear what the next move will be. TYT managers have refused to recognize the union via card check, the simplest form of voluntary recognition. To gain recognition in this way, a majority of workers sign union cards signaling that they want to designate the union as their collective bargaining representative. (According to an organizing committee member, the pro-union forces already have “a solid majority,” which means that a card-check vote would have led directly to recognition.) Instead, management is pushing for a secret ballot election to be administered by a third party outside the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board. TYT executives are also contesting a number of workers’ inclusion in the bargaining unit. Uygur insisted that forcing an election will ensure that every worker has their say, but the staff is unconvinced, and the union is holding strong to its demand for voluntary recognition.

“Personally, I feel let down that TYT won’t recognize our union via card check, instead insisting on [an] election vote held on TYT’s terms in a room attached to Cenk’s office, while excluding a few employees from our unit who IATSE does represent,” the organizing committee member said. “That election is NOT voluntary recognition, and frankly, as a progressive, I find this embarrassing at the home of progressives.”

Thompson had expected to see the unit win swift recognition and was stunned to see TYT flub a chance to enhance its credibility in left-media circles. In his view, cozying up to the union would have been nothing but a net positive for Uygur’s campaign, and for the company as a whole. But now Thompson sees the Young Turk image floundering on the myopia and hypocrisy of the network’s leaders. “Principles aside, from a basic sense of self-protection, how could they not perceive the risk of being labeled union-busters?” he asked in amazement.

“Cenk and his company are globally recognized as pro-union, pro-worker, defender of the little guy; stander-upper to corporate power; fighters for truth, justice, honesty, fairness, and openness,” he continued. “This is, by and large, what inspires such loyalty and money from the member base. No one thought they would refuse! Even if only to avoid the optics they’re facing now. We thought they might resist it, but what kind of management team would be so irresponsible and out-of-touch to allow this? I mean, read the room, geniuses.”

Organizers of the TYT union still have a long road ahead of them before they reach the bargaining table, but the organizer I spoke with has no doubt that they’ll win. The bigger question is how will Uygur’s union-busting initiative affect future digital media organizing? Will other bosses in the sector feel obligated to praise collective organizing out of one side of their mouths while whispering anti-union talking points out of the other? Or will they be put off their game by the specter of the social media (and just-plain-media) backlash that TYT is now facing?

There’s a great and pressing need for progressive publications (and politicians) to walk the walk they’ve long been talking for the sake of enhancing their public profiles and marketability. Even though TYT has squandered its opportunity to lead in this arena, perhaps the next left-of-center management team confronting a nascent union drive—because there will always be a next one—won’t be so foolish. One can only hope that those who fancy themselves good bosses will at least wise up a bit in the face of collective worker power (and the public wrath that greets union-busters).

“Abused and downtrodden workers throughout the world are trapped in this exploitative system and are yearning to breathe free, if only someone with a louder voice than them would show up and give them the inspiration and confidence to do it,” Thompson said. “Wouldn’t that be a much better story for TYT to tell instead of the one being told now?”