VICE workers bargain big pay hike and rights on books, TV, movie deals

April 15, 2016
Category: Business & Work

Editorial workers at youth-oriented VICE Media have bargained a first union contract that calls for an initial minimum $8,000 pay increase and new rights for any future use of their work for TV, movies or books.

The three-year deal is the latest in an emerging trend toward unionizing in the digital media sector. It follows many years of significant declines for unions nationwide, including in the media industry, notably in the dwindling ranks of newspapers.

The deal involves about 70 VICE workers and the Writers Guild of America, East. The union has now signed up editorial employees at VICE, Gawker Media and Salon. It has roughly 4,000 dues-paying members who write for TV, film and the internet, including writers at “The Daily Show,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Law & Order SVU” and the ABC and CBS broadcast news and public TV shows such as “Sesame Street.”

The deal’s provisions are highlighted by what a joint company-union press release calls an economic package “worth 29 percent over three years.” The actual specifics aren’t mentioned but they include:

  • A first-year increase of at least 14 percent. There is a minimum increase of $8,000 the first year. Thus, it’s a much heftier percentage increase for those at the lower end of the pay scale, which includes a fair number of workers making as little as $40,000 or not far above that figure. Since most work in New York City, they likely can’t afford Trump Tower apartments with their journalism pay.
  • The percentage increases in the second and third years are 5 percent in each year.
  • There is an employer match into an employee’s (401)k plan, dollar for dollar, up to three percent.

“The minimum increase will affect a lot of people,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the union, in an interview Friday.

The deal includes what were described as health insurance protections and comp time for work on weekend or other scheduled days, as well as guaranteed severance pay.

A notable non-economic provision appears to be negotiation of what Peterson called “a whole procedure and set of guidelines for intellectual property use.”

That involves expanding work done by a reporter into a TV show, movie or book, either at the initial desire of the reporter or the company. Even if work clearly belongs to VICE, the reporter would have the right to negotiate over the terms of its future use.

As he put it, “If I am a writer, I have rights, and if the company doesn’t agree [about a particular project], we have a discussion. If I want to do something more with what I clearly did for VICE, or VICE wants to expand on something I did, we’ll have a discussion. If I wrote something for VICE, and they do a TV show, I at least get on-air credit.”

“We are deeply proud to announce the major gains made in this agreement, and cited to bring a contract to our members for a vote,” Matt Taylor, crime editor at VICE and bargaining committee leader, said in the formal release.

“This is great news: Both sides have come together and struck a deal that continues to propel VICE forward as media’s most innovative and entrepreneurial workplace, said Alyssa Mastromonaco, COO of VICE and a former top White House aide to President Obama.

“In addition to our existing extensive package of benefits, this agreement is just the latest action VICE has taken to continue to attract the best creative minds in the world, while protecting the creative spirit that defines this company,” she said.

In a larger sense, Peterson suggested the VICE contract is part and parcel of “a maturation of the digital news media business.”

“From the perspective of writers, editors and other content producers, as the business side of these companies becomes more stable — and VICE is certainly well capitalized and expanding — the people who do the work say, ‘I want to build a stable career here, not just make this a passing gig while I hone my skills. This is the work I want to do and make sustainable.'”

VICE has had scant trouble enticing investors, notably Walt Disney Co., which has made two separate investments of $200 million each in the past year as VICE prepared to launch its own cable TV channel, Viceland.

The VICE workers, in Peterson’s mind, decided that collective bargaining was a pathway toward those aims. “We can proudly says we have now produced meaningful results at VICE.”

“They are people not necessarily at the top of the industry as far as working conditions and wages,” Peterson said. “They are enthusiastic about their jobs and the bargaining process has been productive.”

“It’s a combination of VICE employees deciding collective bargaining is worthwhile and management listening to the message,” he said. “That’s resulted in a very good contract.”

Another union, The Newspaper Guild, is the largest union of media workers. It represents about 26,000 workers at about 300 different media entities, including workers at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Boston Globe, the San Jose Mercury News, digital start-up Truthout and the digital operations at many, but not all, big print publications, such as Philly.com.