Digital media workers are unionizing like it’s 1999

by Errol Salamon

Gawker Media’s editorial staff ratified their first union contract on March 1 with their collective bargaining representatives at the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). In addition to including important economic gains, the contract features innovations for workers at media startups that could set sector-wide standards. But digital media workers in the United States have a longer history of union activity in The News Guild-Communications Workers of America (TNG-CWA) from which organizers could also learn.

The Gawker contract includes at least four major innovations, reflecting the realities of the digital workplace:

  1. Editorial independence: decisions about posting editorial content online—such as a story or part thereof, or a headline—can be made only by editorial employees, and content can be removed only by a majority vote of the Executive Editor, the CEO, and the General Counsel;
  2. Republishing: employees have the right to publish books based on the material that they create for the company and collect 100 percent of the royalties;
  1. Contract employees (“permalancers”): night and weekend contractors must be paid the same rate as non-contract employees after working at Gawker for one year, after which they must be offered full-time positions or be terminated; and
  1. Diversity: the company must meet regularly with the union’s “editorial diversity committee” to discuss diversity in hiring and other ongoing issues.

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Gawker may have set off a wave of unionization at online news companies in 2015, but digital media workers have been organizing since 1995. Here’s a brief history of efforts to unionize digital newsrooms over the past 20 years.

On June 9, 1994, the New York Times and America Online Inc. launched “@times,” one of the first online newspaper subscription services in the US. One year later, Times Company Digital, Inc. employees became the first workers at a digital news outlet to unionize. They joined The Newspaper Guild of New York (now The News Guild of New York), Local 31003 of the Communications Workers of America.

“The first labor contract in the U.S. to cover employees of a stand-alone on-line news organization has been won by the N.Y. Newspaper Guild, with Times Company Digital, Inc. (TCD),” announced the New York Guild on December 13, 1999.

The Times Company Digital workers became the local’s twenty-first bargaining unit. The digital workers had previously been covered by provisions in an appendix to the union’s contract with print employees of the Times. All sections of the previous contract were maintained, such as health insurance benefits, overtime, and freelancer coverage.

Yet gains included an additional one percent wage increase each year from 2000 to 2002. Digital employees had already won two percent raises under their previous contract. They also attained the right to participate in the digital company’s stock options.

The New York Times Digital Unit consolidated again in 2012 with the Newspaper Unit. The agreementrecognized “the merging roles and responsibilities in the print and digital operations of the Newsroom.”

On August 27, 2009, digital workers at the non-profit Truthout became the first online-only news organization based in the US to successfully unionize. Truthout workers joined the St. Louis Newspaper Guild, TNG-CWA Local 36047 (now United Media Guild).

Truthout’s organizing drive was innovative: employee mobilization, meetings, and strategy sessions were all conducted virtually. The company also verified union cards with faxed PDFs, holding the first “virtual card check.” Digital organizing tools were important because Truthout employees telecommuted from cities such as New York, Sacramento, Los Angeles and Chicago rather than work on-site at a central location.

“For other employee groups who are scattered around the country, this is a model that organizers may want to attempt,” said Shannon Duffy at the time as Truthout’s union representative. “It made the Internet a tool of organization that it had never been before.”

“Truthout’s association with the Guild – and its Principles of Professionalism and Honesty in the News Media – can be highly beneficial (are you listening, other online publications?),” said Duffy after contract talks were completed in August 2010. “No matter how the delivery system morphs or evolves, the ability to tell a truthful, compelling story is something that will always be in demand. Our union has decades of experience with issues that challenge that ability,” she said.

In 2011, workers at the Daily Beast, an online-only publication, joined TNG when the publication merged with Newsweek, a unionized magazine. The Daily Beast workers initially inherited the Newsweek contract. Under this agreement, Daily Beast employees who were paid below the Newsweek minimum rates would receive pay increases.

But the Daily Beast negotiated a standalone agreement in 2014. Some of the company’s online employees won the right to reclassification as hourly employees, got a raise, and became eligible for overtime—a major issue that digital workers have confronted. Conversely, the contract would ensure that newly-created jobs are paid at rates consistent with similar job categories—another issue with which unions have been concerned as the digital workplace continues to expand.

The contract also established a new “partnership committee,” similar to Gawker’s diversity committee. The partnership committee, comprised of union and management representatives, would be able to implement, recommend, or reform policy not in conflict with the contract regarding issues that affect the Daily Beast’s Guild members.

On July 29, 2015, employees of the Guardian US news website voted unanimously to join TNG-CWA, a move that came amid the wave of organizing digital media outlets such as Gawker and Salon.

TNG-CWA was originally established in 1933 as The American Newspaper Guild, a print journalists’ union, led by newspaper columnist Heywood Broun. Today, the union counts almost 2,000 digital workers among the 26,000 workers that it represents.

TNG-CWA is continuing to invest in organizing efforts with a $500,000 campaign to unionize digital newsrooms across the US. It has set up the Digital Media Guild campaign website.

“Having a voice at work makes all the difference,” stated TNG-CWA on the campaign site. “A NewsGuild contract sets standards that make your job sustainable.”

Gawker’s first union contract, along with the contracts of these other organized online media workplaces, could serve as blueprints for digital workers to set sector-wide standards. Future organizing drives could address not only the novel issues that Internet-based workers face but also the common concerns they share with other workers – concerns that drove workers to start organizing in the first place.

Republished from the Story Board. Follow Errol Salamon on Twitter: @errolouvrier

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