Gawker Changed the Internet. Can It Change Workplace Organizing?

Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Gawker Media offices in New York City. 

Around 100 editorial staffers will vote next week on whether to unionize the workplace behind Gawker.com. The secret online vote, set for June 3, is a first among digital native outlets like Gawker that have dramatically recast the world of online journalism in recent years. The decision marks a new chapter for the company, and for a media landscape still grappling with the complex realities of a digital future.  

The union drive at Gawker began as you might expect: loudly. Six weeks ago senior writer Hamilton Nolan announced at Gawker.com that the editorial staff was in the early stages of organizing a union with the Writers Guild of America, East. The bold announcement sent shockwaves throughout the Internet for a number of reasons—primarily because it involved Gawker and people like Gawker. It also turned on its head the traditional organizing strategy of not going public until the organizing is near completion.

That wasn’t necessarily Nolan’s intention. “I personally would have liked to keep it a little more underground,” he says. But that doesn’t jive with the Gawker ethos, and Nolan’s editors insisted that he dish on the organizing effort. “Gawker has a very strong upfront and honest policy on just about everything, even with our own conduct.”

The campaign at Gawker is not your typical organizing drive. Nolan says most people genuinely like working there and don’t have many grievances with their jobs. Also, management has been rather supportive of the whole thing—Gawker owner and CEO said in an interview he is “intensely relaxed” about the whole thing. As WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson puts it, “it’s been refreshingly free of anything remotely resembling coercion. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising if you look at the editorial stance of Gawker.” In fact, management and writers have mutually agreed to bypass the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and administer the vote on their own—a strong signal of management’s neutrality.

“We believe the cumbersome and often fractious process of unionization is premised on an assumption of complete antagonism between management and labor. Nothing of the kind exists at Gawker,” a joint statement read.

Nolan says that support among editorial staff has been robust. “There are a lot of lefties in this company,” Nolan says. “Once it became clear after the first meeting just how high the interest level was, that’s when the push really got going.” For the staff, there’s widespread agreement on what they want (and don’t want) in a union contract. They want a standardized wage scale and some sort of system for regular raises. Apart from that, it’s the more innate benefits of being in a union that are appealing right now.

Staff organizers posted an article at Gawker.com yesterday explaining the vote procedure and invited those who disagreed with the unionization efforts to voice their concerns in the comments section. Complaints mostly focused on what some saw as a rushed process and a lack of open communication.

“Our editorial staff has been rushed to vote next week on whether or not to unionize, when members of the editorial staff are just now being brought up to speed on what is going on,” staff member Leslie Horn commented. “I don’t understand the rush, and the explanation for it has mostly involved half-hearted, contradictory non-answers.”

Staffer Kevin Draper wrote: “I believe that all Gawker Media staffers should unionize. But I am so disillusioned by the process we have undertaken so far that I have little faith in our ability to band together and negotiate a contract that improves our collective standing. At this point I don’t believe it is in my best interests, or anybody else’s, to vote to unionize.”

“There’s no doubt all the communication efforts have not been perfect. But I really, really hope that everyone will think about the big picture: a vote for this union is a vote for unity. It’s a vote to meld all of our interests together as one. And beyond the practical benefits for us, it’s a really important symbolic vote for our entire industry. It’s the first step of a movement that could end up helping a lot of people,” Nolan responded in the comments.

If anything, the Gawker organizing drive is a fascinating inside look into a process that is usually shrouded in secrecy, not plastered on the web for all to see.

Despite some of their colleagues’ concerns, organizers remain confident that the staff will vote in favor of unionization. If they do, it could signal impending changes for both the online media ecosystem and the Writers Guild. Online media companies are largely without union representation. As The Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis points out, The Daily Beast is probably the sole online media outlet with a union, and that’s only because of its merger with the unionized Newsweek shop in 2011.

Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) currently represents a broad swath of about 4,000 professional writers east of the Mississippi River. The union most notably represents TV writers like those of The Daily Show and The Tonight Show, as well as an increasing number of reality TV show writers (yes, they’re scripted).

Its mission is “making sure that the creative professionals have a seat at the table as this new world is created. As the business and creative models are negotiated we see our role as making sure the creators are at the table and their voices are heard,” WGAE’s Peterson says.

But as the field of writing has gone increasingly digital, the union has been forced to adapt as well. “We’ve been aware for years that the emergence of digital tech would transform the stories that our members craft. We tried to learn as much about it as possible, and organize in this space.”

As the digital media landscape has solidified its presence and shown it can do quite well financially, many think this could usher in a growing demand from workers to improve their lot.

Peterson says right now WGAE’s priority is getting Gawker organized under a solid contract. “But we certainly are aware of other digital media entities out there whose writers could be ripe for creating a collective voice. We’re not [working with Gawker] just to organize other shops, but we’re open to that.”

The union is already in preliminary talks with multiple other digital media companies, though Peterson declined to specify which ones. However, it’s not hard to imagine other similar media groups following suit. Many digital native media organizations are staffed with young people—who are often more liberal and more open to unions. Young people between the ages of 18 and 29 have a 55 percent favorable view of unions, compared to 48 percent of the general population.

According to an extensive report on the state of digital media released by the Pew Research Center in 2014, staffing at digital native organizations has grown rapidly as the outlets gain a foothold in the Internet marketplace. Vice Media, which started 20 years ago as a small alternative publication in Canada, has exploded into a new media mogul—as of 2014 they had a full-time staff of 1,100. Huffington Post, which is celebrating 10 years as a digital native outlet, has nearly 600 full-time editorial staff. Buzzfeed has about 300 editorial staffers in the United States.

When Politico hired labor reporter Mike Elk in January, he promptly announced his intentions to organize the newsroom with the Newspaper Guild, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America. It’s unclear whether or not his efforts have gained much traction. Politico has around 200 on its editorial staff—and it’s rapidly expanding.

“A lot of people hope that if we can show that this can be done in our industry, that it might make it easier for people at a lot of other companies to do the same thing,” Nolan says. “I hope that it puts a little pressure on the management of those companies to say, ‘What’s up with you guys?’”  

This could also reinvigorate unionization within the larger field of journalism, which has diminished as newspapers have struggled to survive. The Newspaper Guild’s membership peaked in the 1950s and ‘60s and plummeted as newspaper ownership consolidated and sales tanked—the union currently represents 34,000 workers in the business.

“You’ve seen how a lot of places like newspapers that have collapsed were unionized, and how the places that have risen in online media are mostly not unionized,” Nolan says. “I think that at some point the new media is going to have to start organizing. Hopefully that’s now.”

A rise in digital media organizing could be beneficial not only to new media workers, but for communications and entertainment unions like the WGA and the Newspaper Guild. While many of the poster children of digital media are well known for being good workplaces, that’s not always the case. A lot of websites are profitable because they rely on writers with low pay and little job security. “[Digital media jobs] are to some extent relatively new jobs. Some of the employers are really good; a lot of the employers are really bad and exploitive. These people look around and say this is not sustainable,” Peterson says.  

“[Gawker] is doing really well right now, but it’s also been through some bad times. It’s a good thing to have the union in place just in case, because who knows what the future will bring,” Nolan says.

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