Rise in union activity is clashing with digital publishing’s business struggles

There’s less money than ever to go around at digital publishers — and more unions popping up to fight to make sure employees get a fair share.

This past week alone, employees at Ziff Davis and New York Magazine both voted to unionize; Slate staffers voted almost unanimously to authorize a strike over management’s refusal to remove a right-to-work clause from a contract currently being negotiated; and in meeting rooms across town, representatives for Gizmodo Media Group, Vice and the Dodo are all busy negotiating either their first or second union contracts with management.

“It’s been an enormous period of growth,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East. “At some point, and we’re getting pretty close, we’ll have sufficient density in the market where, simply to compete for employees, non-union companies will have to improve.”

But those gains are set against a grim background. Thanks to a brutally competitive advertising market, many union employees have gone years without raises, according to CWA president Bernie Lunzer, and unions have little power to protect a newsroom from layoffs.

And while managers at many publishers claim to be supportive of these moves, many complain privately that unions make it harder for them to reward top-performing employees; create distractions among staffers that slow productivity and make it harder for publishers to respond to changes in the business, and cultivate antagonism that corrodes the company culture.

“If you look at the theory of unionization, there’s sort of a surplus to be negotiated over,” said one source who served in management in an organized newsroom. “The reality is, in many newsrooms, there is not that surplus. It just doesn’t exist.”

The overall share of reporters who are unionized remains small, but it is growing. While data on reporters is hard to find, the percentage of unionized workers in arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations grew slightly, from 6.0 to 6.8 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “From a labor point of view, this is kind of a success story,” said Joshua Freeman, a distinguished professor of history at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “The number of workers involved is small, but it’s influential. It’s hard to think of many other industries where you’ve seen that.”

And the momentum that’s popped up in headlines has been building for years, starting with a crop of digital-native publishers including Gawker, Vice and ThinkProgress. “It’s sort of reaching a breaking point now, but those are negotiations that have been going on literally for years,” said Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer at Splinter News who was part of the effort to organize Gawker. “The more places that unionize, the more people look around and see that it’s a good idea.”

Management is usually not happy with what’s going on. An organized workforce is a more expensive workforce, and while most union contracts wind up negotiating raises for workers, some managers see that structure being unfair. “It helped raise the floor, but it flattens the compensation structure,” said an executive inside a publisher. “For the star performers, there’s less money to reward them for doing well.”

It is also, in the eyes of some, a milestone that makes a publisher less attractive in the market and less capable of participating in mergers and acquisitions. “A unionized workforce almost always makes a company less attractive as an acquisition candidate,” said Reed Phillips, a managing partner at the investment banking firm Oaklins Desilva + Phillips.

Those business decisions have played a role in this swell of organizing, too. While better pay and benefits play a major role in most publishers’ organizing fights, sources in several organized newsrooms point to a lack of transparency around changes their bosses made as reasons they unionized, even if management sources contend that giving the newsroom a full view of their problems just amounts to a distraction.

“Whenever workers’ fates do not feel linked to the company’s, like pivoting to video, an organization is going to spring up,” one current Thrillist employee said. “In general the tension shops face, and even more acutely in the lifestyle space like us, between being seen as journalists and just general all-purpose content/traffic creators is a real one that’s not going away overnight.”

Those conversations are typically not ones where unions have gotten involved. But as they continue to make inroads in media, they may wind up taking on a more prominent role, as publishers continue to search for ways to diversify their business models.

“There were days when groups like Poynter and SPJ [Society of Professional Journalists] would turn up their nose at the Guild,” Bernie Lunzer said. “Those days are pretty much gone. We think we can work on these problems together.”


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