August 12, 2015

Journalists at Gawker Media, VICE and Salon are now brothers and sisters with comedy writers on “The Daily Show” and those crafting scripts for anchors on mainstream network broadcasts.

Of course, they might wince slightly at being lumped in with those others. But they’re now members of the same union.

Editorial employees at the three digital news operations have joined the Writers Guild of America East. They still have to try to bargain first contracts with management, which could prove a challenge during an era in which the negotiating balance of power has swung toward management in most industries.

But their decisions to go union are notable, along with that of workers at the Guardian to join another union.

During an age of sharp decline in organized labor, do these moves suggest an incipient turnaround? It’s too early to tell but, at minimum, they reflect inroads among a group of mostly college-educated, white-collar (maybe no-collar?) workers. He or she tends to be a far cry from the long-time blue-collar core of organized labor or the public employees who constitute the only sharp increase for organized labor in recent decades.

The New York-based Writers Guild bears, on one level, scant resemblance to the manufacturing unions that spearheaded organized labor in the last century. Those were a result of often outrageous, even deadly exploitation of workers in auto plants, steel factories, garment sweatshops and coal mines.

But there may well be other common denominators, which partly explains a conversation with Lowell Peterson, a labor lawyer-turned-union official. He’s 57 and has been executive director of the Writers Guild of America East since 2008.

Union members from the Writers Guild of America East, Amalgamated Lithographers of America Local 1 and the Screenwriters Guild hold masks of CBS chairman Les Moonves as they protest outside the media giant's annual shareholders meeting, Thursday, May 26, 2005, in New York.  Writers Guild of America East members are demanding a contract and higher wages for their work. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Union members from the Writers Guild of America East, Amalgamated Lithographers of America Local 1 and the Screenwriters Guild hold masks of CBS chairman Les Moonves as they protest outside the media giant’s annual shareholders meeting, Thursday, May 26, 2005, in New York. Writers Guild of America East members are demanding a contract and higher wages for their work. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

How many dues-paying members do you have, what fields are they in and what are the sorts of specific jobs they hold?

We have between 3,800 and 4,000 dues-paying members at any given moment. They write for TV, film and the Internet. Yes, “The Daily Show” is one of our shows. “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” is one of them. There’s “Law & Order SVU,” the ABC and CBS broadcast news. We have public TV’s big national shows, “Sesame Street” and digital members who write for the Internet. So a lot of scripted stuff, comedy and news.

What is the union’s history in journalism-media sector?

Well, about a third of our members actively employed at any given time are news writers, so there’s a lot of experience; a lot of members writing public affairs and cultural programming for public TV. And satirists. The “CBS Evening News.” We don’t actually have NBC but do have the ABC and CBS evening news. We have some local stations, including the local Fox affiliate in New York.

Gawker seems to have been the first to strike an alliance. What was the initial contact and what was your own specific role?

We’ve got a very good organizing department and have had a digital organizing campaign for years. We’ve gone to conferences, meeting with people for some time to explore how digital technology changes how TV and film are written, distributed and consumed. We have done skills training in journalism. For example, what does it mean to build your own brand on Twitter? So we’ve been out on the street for some time. I’m not sure when the first actual meeting took place with Gawker. But I imagine that at various points in time Gawker popped up. In the spring, one of our organizers was talking to some of the folks at Gawker. I think that in the context of writing up our non-fiction reality TV organizing efforts, the question came up. And somebody said, “What if we at Gawker wanted to organize?” So we called a meeting at the guild office in May, I think. We were at a Fight for 15 [raise the minimum wage] rally and looking at our watches to get back for the meeting. We thought there’d be a few people. But there were 30 who showed up! The next week, 35 showed up. They were very self-organized, self-aware and interested in pursuing collective bargaining. So we put together a campaign and had robust digital online conversations; a lot of which got posted online. We then won a vote [supervised by a third party] by 3-1.

So we now have a good bargaining committee that’s met several times, have gotten information from management about what people are paid and other related matters. The law requires the company to hand over most important information. In this case, management agreed to a vote process and said it would honor the results. It didn’t run an anti-union campaign. They’ve been fine about it.

When you look at the seeming dichotomy of declining traditional print media and the rise of more recent digital media, what do you see?

A: I think a lot of change has happened certainly in the past ten years, certainly the last several. When people started blogging and aggregating online, there was a lot of concern, including by myself, that it would destroy legacy media, including newspapers and broadcasting. People wouldn’t pay journalists to do original reporting and all would be canabalized. That doesn’t seem to be happening. Digital media companies seem to be making a go of it. I think Gawker is one doing quite well. What they are doing is original journalism and storytelling, which also involves a lot of video. What we’re looking at is a convergence that everybody predicted 10 years ago. Audiences and readers will rely as much on digital companies as they do on newspapers and broadcast. The challenge for those companies is to pay attention to that and have good online presences. It’s the way news and stories will be told and people who want to make a living writing non-fiction stories, like news, gossip, cultural work, need to pay attention to it and be in that space, as we are.

I assume that many of the companies with whom you collectively bargain are publicly traded, so there’s a pretty decent sense of their economics. What about dealing with some of these new privately held media companies, like Gawker, VICE and BuzzFeed, which are not? Yes, you may know about the substantial venture capital investments in them but not necessarily how they’re really doing.

It’s an art. With the publicly traded companies, we can look at 10k’s and 10q’s [corporate disclosure records]. With the others, if they want to play the poverty card, they need to show us they are impoverished. You can’t just say we are a startup and can’t pay our people. And Gawker is NOT saying that. They’re admitting that it has good margins. And we have talked about them and they have asked us to keep that confidential. If another company without public information says we are losing money hand over fist, we’ll insist they prove that or pay their people more. The dynamics of bargaining will flush out the truths of financial conditions. Different companies have different balance sheets. VICE has been getting lots of cash infusions—from the State of New York, HBO, venture capital. I anticipate negotiations there to proceed in a straightforward way.

The bedrock of organized labor in the last century was blue collar manufacturing workers, in areas like auto, steel and coal. They were originally the victims of brutal exploitation when it came to wages and working conditions. Compare that with the situation you find with white-collar, or no-collar, media workers who are often college-educated, middle-class and perhaps suspicious of most large institutions. What realities, or nerves, do you hope to touch?

I don’t know that we’ll have a Battle of the Overpass [an epic auto union clash in 1937] or a Homestead [a famously bitter steel dispute in 1892]. It’s true that there isn’t physicality to the struggle, an almost desperate set of conditions where people feel they have no choice. What we see here are three things:

1) Conditions can still be rough. It’s not physically dangerous work but can be quite stressful and people feel the need to protect themselves just from overwork.

2) Perhaps more important is the desire to sustain a career. Particularly as digital media mature and become more mainstream and become the future of how information is compiled and organized, people look at it and say this isn’t just like my first or second job, and I’ll go work somewhere else. It won’t be a matter of being unable to make a living doing this and having to find a real job elsewhere. People are looking at it to make a career and make it sustainable. And unions, including the Writers Guild, offer that as a prospect, a real prospect. We are actually getting traction. I think there’s a maturation of work force and industry, with people saying how can I make it different for myself. One way is collective bargaining, to set a floor on my pay and give me a voice on the job.

3) This isn’t a work force that grew up with FDR [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] saying your president wants you to be in a union. There’s not a tradition of blue-collar militancy. These are knowledge workers, but we have experience with creative professionals. The kinds of things one talks to them about are similar to what one talks about with comedy and TV and news writers. It is culturally different and a wonderful place to work and organize. But knowledge workers don’t bring the same preconceptions, good or bad, to the table. And nobody assumed when they took the job, it would be unionized.

As for the suspicion of a younger generation, and journalists, suspicious of authority and power and large institutions, yes. At the same time, people feel comfortable with each other, so that’s why the self-organizing piece has been gratifying. We have earned the trust of people who have come to trust one another. They distrust their employers as they do other large institutions. But when you get their solidarity, it is real. And we haven’t confronted ideological opposition to organizing. For sure, you’re talking about media people and not at outlets you’d call right wing. But I do think a generation, while skeptical, is always interested in making change, so they are not incorrigibly apathetic. You see that in the environmental movement and a resurgent feminism movement. There is energy there.

How would you candidly characterize any direct responses from individuals at other non-union media organizations amid publicity over your recent successes in this area?

We’re very much are out there, making it happen. Nothing happens just by itself. Even when we have a panel for current members, or want people to engage in political action, we go out and organize. We have people who reach out, make lists, have coffees and actively organize. There is a momentum that makes people more receptive, but this is not totally spontaneous.

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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.…
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