A year ago we wrote in these pages that “it is fair to say that the newspaper industry has not seen [the current] level of union organizing activity in decades, and it is particularly striking that organizing efforts have succeeded at media companies historically not receptive to unions, particularly in their newsrooms.” The year before that we noted that “of all of the pieces written about new media developments, no one predicted the sudden and swift unionization of digital newsrooms that has taken place since 2015.”
In the last twelve months, the industry has seen more of the same, but with a twist: voluntary union recognition. In this regard, while the NewsGuild has won a number of elections, including high profile elections at the Omaha World Herald and the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It also secured voluntary recognition at the Hartford Current, The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press, and New York magazine. On the digital front, voluntary recognition is becoming something of the norm, as the NewsGuild was recognized without an election at Ars Technica, Pitchfork, Quartz, BuzzFeed, and for Time magazine’s digital staffers. Similarly, the Writers Guild of America (East) (WGAE) was voluntarily recognized by a number of digital news operations, including the CBSN streaming news service, Gimlet, Vox Entertainment, and Refinery29.
On the one hand, voluntary recognition by some employers, for example Refinery29, a digital outlet focused largely on millennial women, may simply be consistent with the organization’s progressive credentials. But on the other hand, for example at BuzzFeed, where voluntary recognition came only after a contentious five months seeing several walkouts by staffers, and at the Hartford Current and The Virginia Pilot and Daily Press, the facts suggest that the employers came to the realization that they simply would not win an election.
If this conclusion is correct, the obvious question is “Why?”
In Nieman Reports’ recent cover story, “Why Newsrooms are Unionizing Now,” it is asserted that today’s journalists are saying yes to unions in order “to lift salary floors, win or improve basic benefits, and provide some cushion to the industry’s volatility.” Similar observations have been made been made in these pages (See the June 29, 2018 Inlander article,“What’s behind the union organizing blitzkrieg at both high-profile and off-the-radar properties.”)
While these vulnerabilities have long been recognized, the answer may simply be that they have intensified beyond the breaking point. We would, however, like to offer two additional observations.
The first is that the once confident conceit among some that today’s tech-savvy millennial content producers would be impervious to unionization was simply wrong. It is clear that in an increasing number of organizing efforts, millennials are at the forefront. It is equally clear that management has generally been unable to counter those efforts by effectively communicating with this newsroom segment.
The second observation is that one group of longtime newsroom defenders, front line editors, seem less able or willing to take up the challenge. There appear to be a number of reasons for this. The staffing reductions that have swept the industry have fallen relatively heavily on the ranks of editors/supervisors. This means that there are fewer frontline management representatives to counter an organizing drive, and those who remain are already stretched thin. Further, in today’s environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that some frontline editors are sympathetic to the arguments and aims of those seeking to unionize. Finally, some editors may hope that unionization will protect them as well.
We conclude with the words of our 2018 article on union organizing:
Whether it is fair nor not, in this “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” moment, no newspaper is invulnerable to union organizing. While it is impossible to ignore the economic realities confronting the industry, news organizations must rethink and redouble their efforts to connect with employees and to be recognized as responsible employers in difficult times.
Michael Rybicki is a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, practicing labor and employment law with a focus on traditional labor matters. He can be reached at email@example.com.