Newsroom unions push for better terms as end-of-year mass media layoffs loom

The latest wave of media layoffs this month has sparked newsroom unions from Condé Nast to G/O Media to publicly reprimand their companies’ leadership decisions.

Newsrooms have unionized rapidly since the pandemic began in 2020, but the thousands of media employees that have been let go since indicate that unionizing can’t prevent layoffs from happening. Unions just don’t have that power.  But unions can work to negotiate the terms of mass layoffs, including the number of people impacted and contract provisions that address severance packages.

“Layoffs are inevitable. They happen. No union can say, ‘No one can ever get fired,’” said Sara David, vp of online media at Writers Guild of America, East, which represents unions at G/O Media, Vice Media and Vox Media, among others. “Our goal isn’t to try and save our industry from layoffs… Right now, it’s about helping folks sustain their careers throughout layoffs and changes and working toward a more equitable and sustainable future.”

Media layoffs tend to disproportionately impact editorial teams thus reducing the size of the unions. Alma Avalle, digital operations associate for Bon Appétit and part of Condé Nast Union’s bargaining committee, said recent layoff plans could cut their membership by 25%. Since the formation of G/O Media in 2019, The Onion Inc.’s union has shrunk by 61% due to a variety of factors, including layoffs, website sunsets and sales.

‘Humane’ severance in a ‘roller coaster’ industry

Every contract won by a WGA, East guild has a clause on severance, as the topic is “top of mind” for union members, according to David. “You’re just kind of hoping that you can survive the roller coaster. It really feels like [in this] industry, one day you can be employed and the next you can be unemployed,” David said.

Some of the most robust severance packages at digital media unions repped by the WGA, East are at G/O Media’s union GMG Union and Vox Media’s union, David said. Those unions’ contracts include a minimum of 12 weeks severance and continued insurance coverage after a layoff — companies typically give two weeks, David said. Some contracts have language written into them allowing members to keep their equipment, professional contacts and access to their work too, she said.

David herself was a part of mass layoffs twice in the past two years and credited the unions she belonged to with providing much-needed assistance while she waited three months for a new job to start last year. “I would never have been able to do that if I didn’t have some sort of cushion,” David said.

Unions can provide a support system during a difficult transition period, David said. WGA, East for example has staff that reviews layoff agreement packages and makes recommendations to union members, such as suggesting they save email contacts.

Public pressure campaigns on social media can help raise awareness and gain sympathy for members that are going through a layoff. Vice’s union started a fundraiser to give money to those laid off after the company filed for bankruptcy and hired a bankruptcy lawyer to help navigate the unexpected circumstances for union members, David added.

Pushing back on layoffs

For unions that have not yet reached an agreed-upon contract with company management, a layoff is considered a condition of employment, and terms like the number of people being let go would need to be negotiated before enacted due to status quo protections.

This is currently happening at Condé Nast. Condé Nast Union — which represents workers at titles like Allure, Architectural Digest, Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, Epicurious, Glamour, GQ, Self, Teen Vogue, them., Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Condé Nast Entertainment — has been bargaining its first contract since the union was certified in September 2022. 

Condé Nast announced a restructuring on Oct. 10, and on Nov. 1 the company said it intended to let go 5% of its workforce, including 150 members of Condé Nast Union (or 25% of the union’s membership), according to Avalle. It would impact people on the audience development, video post-production and editorial teams, she said.

“The company can’t push layoffs through unilaterally. Any change to working conditions needs to be bargained over… and needs to be part of a complete agreement,” Avalle said, which includes terms for wages, benefits, time off and return to office.

Condé Nast’s union reacted with what they perceived to be a lack of communication and transparency from management around the planned layoffs. The union led a march on Nov. 8 with around 60 members delivering a signed petition by 350 members demanding a town hall with CEO Roger Lynch. On Nov. 15, about 60 unionized staff at Bon Appétit and Epicurious walked out during a scheduled staff meeting with the magazine’s editor-in-chief Jamila Robinson in protest of Condé Nast’s layoff plans.

“We have asserted our right to information about why they want the cuts and what their restructuring plan would be for after any layoffs would be made. They have refused to provide that information to the full union and instead insisted on requiring bargaining team members to sign non-disclosure agreements,” said a NewsGuild spokesperson.

One proposal between the union and management is that the company would give a month of paid leave to members starting Dec. 4 before letting them go, Avalle said. As of publishing time, it was unclear if this proposal had been brought to the table yet. A person familiar with the negotiations between the union and Condé Nast management said meetings were held last Friday and on Monday, and that the company is in “active bargaining.”

“The thing about our industry is we’re always at risk of layoffs, no matter how long we’ve been at companies, no matter whether or not we have a union,” David said. “The only difference would be if you have a union contract, you can win some protections that can literally be life-saving. It’s not going to stop the layoffs. But the important thing is that you’re never going to be alone in the process,” David said.

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