Unionizing the digital media revolution

By Patrick Cochran

Hamilton Nolan played a key role in organizing Gawker’s newsroom. Credit: Victor Jeffreys

Hamilton Nolan played a key role in organizing Gawker’s newsroom.

Credit: Victor Jeffreys

A revolution is taking place in digital media. Workers at the companies that produce the material you read during work, share on Facebook, and comment about on Twitter are unionizing, and changing the Internet landscape.
               
It all started in the spring. For years there had been some chatter about unionizing at popular websites like Vice, Gawker, and Buzzfeed. Online writers like Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan championed the cause in their writing, but it wasn’t until April that the issue came to the forefront. 
 
“There were a lot of reasons to join a union,” Nolan said. “Even though we have a high level of job satisfaction here, there were still issues with things like salary structure, and having a formal system for raises instead of it being ad hoc. Some of us have been through layoffs before, and after the recession we went through them here, so it is important to have a union to protect the workers.”
 
On April 14, Gawker’s front page ran a Nolan-written declaration, “Why We’ve Decided to Organize,” telling readers that the Gawker staff was in the beginning stages of going union. Because of Gawker’s self-described “radical transparency ethos” they decided to post all the company’s internal discussions about the process.
  
Helping the Gawker staff behind the scenes was Ursula Lawrence, then an organizer for the Writers Guild of America-East. Lawrence originally talked to Nolan about connecting her with an employee at Vice, which the WGA-East had long wanted to organize.
 
“We had been focusing on organizing digital media since the 2008 writers’ strike,” Lawrence said. “The strike was a mandate by our members to organize digital media. Since Vice is into video content, which is our wheelhouse, we wanted to bring them into the fold. I asked Hamilton to put me in contact with someone at Vice and his response was, ‘Why not try organize us?’”
 
On June 3, Gawker employees voted by a 3-1 ratio to join the WGA-East. 

“I can’t speak for everyone,” Nolan said. “But a lot of us find it significant to be the first company of our size to unionize and get the ball rolling.”
 
Throughout the summer, workers at major websites began to organize. Salon and Vice joined the WGA-East. By summer’s end, employees at Al Jazeera America and the Guardian US voted to join The NewsGuild, the Pacific Media Workers Guild’s parent union.
 
Some company managements have tried to dissuade employees from unionizing, arguing it would ruin the relationship between workers and bosses. In an interview with his own website, Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti propagated that point of view while claiming to support labor.
 
“A lot of the best new-economy companies are environments where there’s alliance between managers and employees,” Peretti said. “When you look at companies that have unionized, the relationship is very different. The relationship is much more adversarial,”
 
“A union is the only real mechanism that exists to represent the interests of employees in a company,” Nolan wrote in “Why We’ve Decided to Organize.” Workers have to take care of their own interests and can’t expect management to do so, he said.
 
“It still is in progress,” he said. “People still have some hesitancy about organizing. But now people can see what we did and how we did it. Hopefully that will help them.”
 
These events would have seemed highly unlikely just a few years ago. 
 
“There was a sentiment that digital media couldn’t be organized,” Lawrence said. “A no-man’s land of why would you even try, but we proved that wasn’t the case. All of this is a really positive step.”
 
Lawrence thinks the recent events speak strongly for young people and their urge to unionize. 
 
“It is a great start and said a lot about a generation ready to organize.”

Guild Freelancer Patrick Cochran is a journalism student at City College of San Francisco and a graduate of Bay News Rising