Vox Media workers' union move, explained

A formal declaration by editorial workers at Vox Media falls short (thankfully) of the fury and blood-stained victimization rife in long-ago calls for collective action in the auto, steel, clothing, railroad or coal industries, among others.

"Vox Media’s commitment to quality and innovation, as well as its core values emphasizing ambition, collaboration, and respect, have made this one of the best places to work in the industry," wrote the new organizing committee at Vox as it cast its lot with the Writers Guild of America, East. "There is no better way to cultivate that innovation, and champion our values, than to unionize."

Well, one need not await arrival at Vox offices around the nation of gun-toting Pinkerton guards, U.S. Army soldiers, National Guard, local cops or hired thugs, all with the aim of busting a unionizing attempt. Indeed, its younger-skewing work force probably doesn't know about that disgraceful slice of U.S. history in which management in critical American enterprises attacked their own employees — and ultimately helped to accelerate a union movement that brought many of the protections enjoyed by workers today.

But it's notable that members of the Vox workforce now desire to memorialize pay, benefits and basic workplace rights in a first-ever contract there. It's part of a notable mini-trend amid decades of union decline. It also challenges assumptions about younger Americans' lack of interest in such collective action and the inability of unions to lure white-collar millennials.

Vox Media is a smart and alluring web of sites unburdened by the baggage of legacy institutions, filled with young talent that's now drawn from old media such as newspapers, a favorite of investors and apparently run with a general sensitivity to workers' concerns.

Its best-known element is its general news site, Vox. com, which is spearheaded by journalist and blogger Ezra Klein, whose latest efforts include a critique of a much-discussed New York Times profile of an Ohio Nazi. 

He arrived after splitting from The Washington Post in 2014 after failing to convince his bosses (Jeff Bezos had recently bought the paper) to let him expand his popular and chart-filled economics blog, Wonkblog, from policy vertical into a de facto free-standing and expanding separate business.

Its lure was so-called explainers, as media analyst Ken Doctor notes, and especially ones crafted by smart millennial journalists. It was to be an alternative to stodgier legacy mainstream media that, in Klein's mind, didn't see similarly, simple-to-understand assessments as the core mission. Graphically, an early symbol of the strategy were digital file cards, where a story would be explained, as if you'd jotted down the essence on a white 3 x 5 card purchased at Staples or Home Depot.

So check the site in recent days and you will find, "Delhi's off-the-charts smog, explained: Breathing in Delhi this month was like smoking 50 cigarettes a day." It's a bit longer than early iterations of the signature gambit, but the overall thrust is the same.

Management, which has not yet publicly responded, must consider whether to voluntarily recognize a union that represents writers at "The Daily Show," "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," "Law & Order SVU," the ABC and CBS broadcast news, and public TV shows such as "Sesame Street." More relevant, it represents digital news staffs at VICE, HuffPost, The Intercept, Gizmodo Media Group (Splinter, Gizmodo, Jezebel, Deadspin, The Root, Lifehacker, Kotaku, io9, Jalopnik, Earther), ThinkProgress, MTV News, Thrillist and Salon. The union also has an area on its site just for digital media workers.

Asad
Syrkett

Asad Syrkett, 28, is senior editor of Curbed.com, a real estate and home décor slice of Vox Media that has a staff of 40 and cranks out 14 city sites and a central site, or 15 in all. He worked at Architectural Record and at Conde Nast before coming to Vox. There are eight separate brands at Vox Media, including Vox.com (perhaps best associated with Klein), Racked, Polygon and SB Nation. He very much likes working at a company "that has moved in a really challenging business and media environment, with an incredible willingness to try new things. There's a multiplicity of social media platforms. I liked being at a place where people are primed to take risks and tell great stories."

So why is there an interest in a union and getting management to sit down and bargain a contract? On the surface, their situation couldn't seem more different from the so obviously exploited workers in an older manufacturing-based economy.

"It offers us an opportunity to give us stable ground in an unstable media environment. Vox has been doing incredibly well. People are passionate about working here. But we're journalists who see what's being written about the struggles of other companies. We have identified those as potential roadblocks and decided that unionized across all eight verticals is the best way to assure staying on top of things."

He continued, "If speaking in economic terms, every media company, whether long-standing pedigreed company or new digital enterprise, has come across an unsureness with advertising dollars. Time Inc., BuzzFeed, The New York Times. No company is immune to the forces of the market, so that's something concerning everybody in journalism. But Vox Media has also done a good job in fostering a workplace with transparency. But there's never enough of that. I know that hasn't been the same at other places. We want to protect ourselves against any changes that we might not even know about right now."

He doesn't point to any one topic of concern as greater than any other or any single event or personnel decision as a catalyst to organizing. There's an overall desire for more transparency vis-à-vis all the concerns workers have in any workplace, notably, salary, benefits and general workplace fairness. They're the same general matters that concerned members of his own family, who have been in social work and nursing.

I asked him about notions that his generation is less inclined toward ties to big institutions and collective action. In his mind, a union "is what you make of it. What is heartening here is how enthusiastic and positive people have been (toward the notion of unionization). A lot of that enthusiasm beats back assumption about millennials and our collective opinions about things. I don't know why people think millennials are wary of collective action."

Yes, he concedes, there's a healthy skepticism about established institutions at every level and that, for sure, has impacted views of some toward labor unions. But he thinks there's a sea change playing out. "I understand why people might feel that way. I don't think it's true and it's been made pretty clear in the fervor and interest in organizing at digital media companies, like Vox, Thrillist, Gawker, Slate."

It's also clear that the overall competitive editorial landscape is changed, in some measure due to Vox. Four years after Klein's departure from The Post, his old paper and The New York Times are resurgent, as Doctor reiterates what's fairly plain to see.

They both do more assessments of policy supplemented by an army of smart designers and data mavens, he said. They've upped the ante amid the daily luring of younger, smart audiences, be they millennials or gray beards, and fight for digital ad dollars as do many others, including Vox, Vice, Axios, The Atlantic and BuzzFeed among others.

So does Vox morph into a supplement, rather than clear alternative to the news organizations that, in some cases, simply have greater resources and branding reach?

The market will settle that matter in coming years. Until then, its many fans await to have explained whether some workers' desire for a union will come to fruition, either through voluntary recognition by management of their union or a formal election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. It's a turn of events that a lot of labor observers would not necessarily have envisioned five or 10 years ago.

As noted Sunday by D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, the major hotel and and restaurant employees union, "The latest polling in the U.S. has about 62 percent approving of unions versus historically in the 30s. Something is happening out there if we can take advantage of it."

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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