What Made the Difference at Gawker? The Boss

Does the union victory at Gawker portend a new day for American unions? I wish.

No question that the vote of three-quarters of the online media site’s employees to have the Writers’ Guild of America represent them in bargaining with Gawker management is a big deal. The victory marked a breakthrough for unions in one of those new sectors of the American economy from which organized labor has been totally absent. And the importance of the victory was magnified by the pro-union case that Gawker writers made to their readers.

But did this victory among Gawker’s largely young and self-consciously hip employees signal that hitherto union-free millennials are now turning to unions? Actually, no—because every recent poll makes clear that a decisive majority of union-free millennials already support unions. Gawker’s writers and editors were simply able to do what millions of millennials would like to do. The crucial difference at Gawker was that their boss let them do it.

Every year, both Gallup and Pew poll to determine unions’ favorability ratings, and in recent years, they’ve returned with similar readings: The most recent Gallup Poll, from August of last year, showed 53 percent of Americans approved of unions while 38 percent disapproved; while the most recent Pew poll, from this April, showed 48 percent of Americans viewed unions favorably and 39 percent viewed them unfavorably. (Pew also found that corporations were doing worse than unions: 48 percent thought of them favorably, 43 percent unfavorably.)

But when Pew sliced and diced its responses (which Gallup did not), it found that young Americans were unions’ most fervent supporters. While 46 percent of its respondents in each of its three older age groups (30 to 49, 50 to 64, and 65-plus) viewed unions in a favorable light, fully 55 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 held a favorable view of unions, while just 29 percent held unfavorable ones. Pew even found that a slim plurality of Republicans under 35 thought well of unions: 45 percent held positive views, 44 percent negative. For that matter, 65 percent of Democrats (of all ages) thought favorably of unions, and given the towering share of Democrats (or left-of-Democrats) working in the media, new or old, the Gawker vote should have surprised no one.

But wishes aren’t horses, and support for unions doesn’t translate into the ability to actually join one. In fact, young workers are the least likely age group to be represented by unions. In 2014, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, just 4.5 percent of workers age 16 to 24, and just 9.5 percent of workers age 25 to 34, were union members. Indeed, and this has been the pattern for decades, the older the age group, the higher the level of union membership: the unionization rate is 12.4 percent for workers 35 to 44; 13.8 percent for workers 45 to 54; and 14.1 percent for workers 55 to 64. Even workers 65 and over—what we used to think of as retirement age—had a higher rate of unionization (9.7 percent) than young workers. 

There are a host of reasons why the most pro-union age group has the lowest rate of union representation. Three decades of downsizing manufacturing, while retaining the workers with the most seniority, has meant that few young people work at unionized factories. The layoffs of public employees since the financial crisis of 2008 have also been experienced disproportionately by the young. More important, however, is that the growing sectors in recent times, the sectors in which the most young people have been hired—above all, retail and food services—are sectors with near universal employer opposition to unionization, as the examples of Walmart and McDonald’s illustrate. For that matter, the young have been disproportionately shuttled into the jobs of the gig economy, in which employers such as Uber deny that their employees are employees at all.

After decades of focusing their energies elsewhere, unions have now begun to organize among these hitherto neglected sectors. The Service Employees International Union has put together a remarkable campaign of fast-food workers, which has succeeded in getting the minimum wage raised in a growing number of cities and states. And yet, given the near universality of employer opposition to their workers’ unionizing, and the near nonexistent protections that labor law affords those workers when they try to form unions, even fast-food workers in cities that have decreed $15 minimum wages have still been blocked from forming the unions they seek.

So, what was so different at Gawker? In a word, the boss.

When the workers first told the world they wished to join the Writers Guild, Nick Denton, the company’s owner, founder and CEO, told the press that he was “intensely relaxed” about the prospect of his employees’ unionizing. Last Wednesday, the day his workers were voting on joining the union, he went further, telling Capital New York, “I’ve long been intrigued by the German co-determination model. [Under German co-determination, corporate boards are composed of equal numbers of management and worker representatives.] Relations between an employer and workers don’t need to be as confrontational as they often are in the U.S. That means sharing both the revenues brought in by the writers’ work, in a transparent fashion, and sharing responsibility for the health of the entire enterprise.”

Nick Denton, in other words, is not your typical American employer. In 1993 and '94, when legislation that would have afforded more legal protections to workers trying to form unions was before Congress, its advocates scrambled to find some prominent employers to testify on its behalf. Then they scrambled to find just one prominent employer who’d testify on its behalf. Then they gave up. The bill died in the Senate.

So what’s the moral of labor’s success at Gawker? It’s not that young workers think well of unions: We knew that. It’s that labor needs to clone Nick Denton. 

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