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Columbia Journalism Review

An unlikely big player in digital media: unions

Organizing is the hip new thing to do

Posted on
Jun 26, 2017

This article by Gary Weiss originally appeared in The Columbia Journalism Review. 

THE AXE FELL AT HUFFPOST the other day. The news site laid off dozens of staffers, in what has became a painful, disruptive—and depressingly familiar—ritual of online journalism. In recent months, layoffs have hit digital media particularly hard, as the limits of online advertising have become clear.

But the HuffPost cuts came with a twist: 39 of the laid-off staffers were represented by the Writers Guild of America East, meaning they were covered by a union contract. As a result, the discharged workers—one-fifth of the 200 WGAE members at HuffPost—have been promised a package that includes severance pay and continued health benefits.

HuffPost isn’t an anomaly, an island of union solidarity in the go-it-alone world of New York journalism. Over the past two years, online newsrooms have organized at a pace that would have made the Newspaper Guild’s legendary co-founder, Heywood Broun, beam with pride. “Organizing is the hip new thing to do,” says Mike Elk, who was a labor writer at Politico, which he unsuccessfully sought to organize, and now edits a newsletter that tracks labor activism in the south.

News unions are back. They never really went away, of course, but for the first time in memory they are proactive rather than on the defensive. They are strong on promoting diversity and editorial independence, and often provide impressive raises, but tend to skimp on traditional worker protections—overtime pay and even just-cause firing—because they aren’t seen as that important to the new generation of newspeople.

Seniority in layoffs tends to go by the wayside. It did at HuffPost. Its three-year contract, ratified in January 2017, did not require that layoffs take place in reverse order of seniority, a traditional union demand that protects employees from bosses targeting higher-paid workers during downsizings. Not surprisingly, the ranks of the discharged in the recent layoff included longtime, presumably better-paid staffers—including the reporter who won HuffPost’s only Pulitzer Prize.

The staffs that have opted for union representation since mid-2015, mostly with the WGAE, are a long roster of largely new-media outfits: Gawker, Fusion, and The Root, Salon, Vice, MTV News, ThinkProgress, The Guardian US, Jacobin, The Intercept, Thrillist and, most recently, Slate and the newly merged DNAInfo/Gothamist. HuffPost recognized the WGAE in early 2016. At Law360, a union drive by the NewsGuild (the renamed Newspaper Guild) was spurred by outrage over noncompete agreements staffers were required to sign, which forced one staffer out of a new job at Reuters.  In just the past few days, the staff of the Washington-based online news site Raw Story petitioned the owners for voluntary recognition of the NewsGuild.

This sudden spurt of union activity is a surprise, given the beleaguered reputation of newspaper unions, which have seen their ranks plummet as employment has fallen. Staffers at the Village Voice, represented by a UAW local, are fighting hard against management demands for cutbacks and concessions, and have launched a crowdfunding campaign in the event the newspaper’s employers are forced to strike.

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