The digital news team at Al Jazeera America announced last week that it wants to go union, following a string of similar campaigns in recent weeks by web-based journalists who have moved toward or formally voted to establish unions at The Guardian US, Vice, Salon, and Gawker. The organizing bump suggests that, while journalism faces a troubled future, on the labor front, there’s good news to tell.
Though a few hundred workers unionizing isn’t a “game changer” exactly, the campaigns show that while unions at “legacy” newspapers are eroding, organizing still has a place in the digital space.
The announcement, issued on Thursday by New York NewsGuild (part of Communications Workers of America), stated that the workers had “petitioned for representation,” and were, as of Friday, awaiting a response. The main concerns of staff involve “a troubling lack of transparency, inconsistent management and lack of clear redress” for workers’ grievances, as well as what they see as discrepancies in pay and performance evaluation.
New York NewsGuild President Peter Szekely tells The Nation via e-mail that the union seeks to represent about 50 digital news employees, “including writers, editors and photo staff, but does not include anyone on the TV side.” But there is a possibility of incorporating more workers into the campaign as the organizing proceeds. Before the campaign went public, he noted, the workers “approached an AJAM manager…to present their mission statement.” So far the response has been tight-lipped: an internal e-mail to staff from AJAM President Kate O’Brian, obtained by The Nation, stated, “We’re taking strides to ensure that all voices are heard and acknowledged” and acknowledged, without comment, the possibility of “an anonymous secret ballot election” sometime in the future. (Disclosure: I have contributed to AJAM and know some staffers personally.)
The door remains open for voluntary recognition; Salon executives went through several weeks of backroom wrangling with staff before agreeing to recognize the union. In the meantime, the petition sets in motion the timeline for an official ballot process under NLRB rules.
Salon, Gawker, and Vice have organized with Writers GuildEast, which until recently was focused on broadcast and entertainment fields. The Guardian and Al Jazeera have aligned with the Newsguild, which has historically represented newspapers (and represents The Nation staff). Altogether, these staffs are small—roughly 100 Vice staffers have formed the nascent union out of 700 US workers, and Gawker unionized about 118 workers across its multiple sites. But the efforts are notable in what they suggest about the future of digital labor, and also in how they’ve engaged the public (in the oddly casual media banter leading up to Gawker’s unionization, CEO Nick Denton publicly endorsed the effort, while some staffers voiced dissent on the site’s discussion forum).