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).
While the labor movement has been hemorrhaging union workers and political clout for decades, the explosive growth of the digital-media sector is an obvious draw for Writers Guild and Newsguild, who can organize workers to challenge exploitative working conditions and demand a fair share of the profits their digital start-ups are starting to reap.
In the entrepreneurial mystique surrounding Silicon Valley, it’s easy to overhype the impact of technological innovation on labor. As some commentators have pointed out, the digital journalists who have unionized, most of them staff writers, represent a tiny portion of the news sector and perhaps even smaller sliver of the online-media workforce. At least one media executive, Buzzfeed’s founder Jonah Peretti, proclaims unabashed disdain for unionization. And the journalism workforce as a whole suffers myriad deficits, not just in numbers but also in racial, gender, and socioeconomic diversity. Still, beyond statistics, in terms of both influencing the media workplace and being a labor news story in itself, unionization is amplifying labor’s voice on emergent platforms.
As the top-down corporate-media hierarchy erodes, independent journalists and alternative publications can take advantage of online platforms to massify their audience and connect directly to readers. Similarly labor can use technology to match the slick, rapid-fire intensity of corporations when campaigning or engaging union members. If popular movements and progressive journalists can harness the technological upheaval and disruption, they’ll avoid getting blindsided by those changes.
As Jill Geisler commented on the site of Columbia Journalism Review: “why not apply that same disruptive mindset and vigor [of the tech sector] to creating contemporary labor/management compacts that improve the work environment while still keeping things creative and flexible?”
Flexibility isn’t power, though. To the extent that labor can change media workers’ material conditions, it will need to establish standards in the expanding liminal online space. That could mean reaching out to freelancers and non-editorial media professionals to organize across the sector. Or imagining the workplace power structure as a transnational social sphere with unique risks and opportunities. If organizations like Vice and Al Jazeera America (the US branch of a huge global media conglomerate) emerge as chroniclers of global social struggles, press freedom and journalists’ labor conditions will be a part of that discourse. The politically charged imprisonment of three Al Jazeera correspondents in Egypt, and the recent detention of Vice correspondents in Turkey shows how dangerously close reporters often get to their subjects. A media labor crisis shades into a human right crisis: journalists around the world face not only precarious working conditions but multiple levels of oppression, censorship, and trauma in the field.
So despite the tech evangelism, new media suffer from some very old challenges. And, industry trend pieces notwithstanding, media unionization 3.0 is also a rebranding of an old story. There is a long legacy of media-industry organizing stretching back to the Great Depression, when the Newspaper Guild got its start with militant newshounds at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Back then, media workers linked their cultural labor to systemic labor struggles, and, in word and deed told the stories that inked the Popular Front’s legacy in the public imagination.
Those sepia-toned newsroom wars are the stuff of nostalgia in today’s postindustrial economy, but there are new stories to be written: on issues of free expression, inequality, and mass movements. Truthfully documenting those issues requires a critical analysis of social justice. Why shouldn’t journalists on the front lines of those struggles be free to chart their own labor future too?