Gawker Media has gone union. About 120 workers at the digital media outlet, headquartered in New York City, voted 75 per cent in favour of joining the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE) union on June 3 — making it the first major online-only organization with a union shop.
In a post published on Gawker's website under the banner "Why we’ve decided to organize," senior writer Hamilton Nolan wrote "Every workplace could use a union."
It’s a sentiment mirrored across many of Gawker’s editorial staff, he said.
"We have a lot of lefties working here and a lot of people were probably positively disposed to labour organizing from the start," Nolan said in an interview, adding the campaign was relatively well-received by management.
What the writers sought was the establishment of a wage scale, a severance-pay system and proven workplace communication — provisions Nolan said would be effective industrywide, and that he hopes will serve as a blueprint for like media companies.
"There are other places in this industry where pay is extremely low, work hours are extremely long; there’s very little division between working and not working, sort of an always-on atmosphere.
"There are places in the new media industry that are more or less notorious for low pay and poor working conditions and using younger workers as chum, basically," he said.
"Hopefully, that’s the kind of thing, across the industry, that unions could address."
In the United States, private sector unionization fell to 6.6 per cent in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As such, unions have been ramping up efforts to recruit membership from new media companies. Whereas unions have long been entrenched in journalism, inroads are now being made to adapt to a changing industry.
For instance, the WGAE launched a project devoted to digital media six years ago. Reporters at Politico, a Washington, D.C.-based online and print publication, are gearing up for their own organization effort.
The National Labor Relations Board even introduced changes to representation rules to speed up the union election process, which came into effect in April.
Here in Canada, Unifor unionized Canoe.ca workers earlier this spring, though online writers were included in the bargaining unit alongside print and broadcast journalists at QMI Agency (now Postmedia).
That Gawker is poised to become one of the first wholly digital media companies with a union could herald a sea-change for the industry.
Lowell Peterson, executive director of WGAE in New York, noted the union is a way for digital-first employees to establish an independent voice.
"There was some concern that this was all about aggregation… that there’s no way to create compelling journalism online, and to make it work financially or creatively. And I think that’s changed.
"There’s definitely sustainability and Gawker, in some ways, is the best example of a sustainable digital media model," he said.
"The people who work in digital media — including people who have always worked in digital media, they didn’t come over from print or broadcast — they’re looking at this and saying, ‘This is a career, how do I make sure that this is a sustainable career?’ And that’s where we come in."
As print and even broadcast journalism migrate to online, it’s obvious digital is the next organizing frontier, said Howard Law, Unifor’s director of media.
"Journalists can often find that they’re the expendables, right? And they know it. Even well-paid journalists know that the more you’re paid, the more you’re potentially a target for the budget reductions," Law said.
"Journalists are a pretty savvy bunch and that’s why there’s such a high rate of unionization. So it doesn’t surprise me and it won’t surprise me that there will be more of this."
Wake-up call for employers
For young media and digital companies, the Gawker certification could serve as a wake-up call.
"It demonstrates that even in these cool, new employer relationships, where essentially everybody is reporting to be happy with their employer and culture and what they’re offering, it still shows that employers, even in this space, are vulnerable to organizing efforts," said Ian Schaefer, a labour lawyer who heads up the technology, media and telecommunications group at Epstein Becker Green in New York.
He cautions all employers, including those beyond the media sector, that unions are targeting younger workplaces that are not traditionally unionized.
This will affect the ways in which unions recruit, campaign and even leverage social media, Schaefer said.
"To survive and to stay relevant, they try to appeal to the idealism and sensibilities of a workforce that is dominated by millennials," he added.
Over the past three decades, unionization rates have steadily declined. Over that same period, the wage gap has increased.
For Nolan, the two are connected — and unions are beginning to look like a viable and appealing option for younger generations grappling with a new economy.
"Organized labour is going to experience something of a revival or a comeback because it’s the most available way for regular workers to fight those sort of economic forces that keep pushing people down and elevate a very small percentage of people to the top," Nolan said.
Though the Gawker case is an important one for the industry, it is too soon to tell whether the dominoes will fall.
"One thing is absolutely clear — it’s unrealistic at best, and probably at worst naive, to think that by introducing the union to Gawker, to any other new media workplace, that it won’t change that workplace. It will. Anytime you bring a third party into your business, it’s going to fundamentally change that business culture," said Schaefer.
Perhaps one factor contributing to the harmonious relationship between Gawker and its employees is both parties acknowledge the nature of the industry.
Peterson said both Gawker managers and staff have shown a commitment to journalistic integrity and writers’ independence.
"People wanting a voice on the job is something that cuts across all of the workplaces where we have members," he added.
Up next for Gawker staff is to form bargaining committees with representatives from its sister websites, and then to hammer out a collective agreement with management to be approved by membership.
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