Too many writers chasing too few jobs. A culture of short-timers building personal brands. A newsroom full of college-educated young people, paid partly in stock, who identify with management. That’s why online media was—and would likely remain—non-union, said a January 2015 Washington Post article entitled, “Why Internet journalists don’t organize.”
How wrong that turned out to be. Within months, an explosion of union organizing had begun in online media that’s still going strong four years later.
The union wave started with online tabloid Gawker, where workers notified management of their support for Writers Guild of America (WGA) on April 16, 2015, and proved it in an 80-to-27 union vote six weeks later.
Strictly speaking, Gawker wasn’t the first unionized online media organization. Truthout had unionized in 2009 and In These Times in 2014. But those were outliers—progressive non-profits that relied on liberal good will, and even union financial support in the case of In These Times. Meanwhile, workers at the Daily Beast news and opinion site had become union almost by accident when their employer merged in 2011 with NewsGuild-CWA-represented Newsweek, and stayed union when Daily Beast became independent again.
Gawker going union was something else entirely.
“When Gawker unionized, it was a light bulb in the heads of a lot of people in our industry,” says writer Hamilton Nolan, one of the leaders of the union effort there. “Media is a pretty small world. People talk to each other. It was something a lot of people hadn’t considered before.”
By the end of 2015, Salon, Huffington Post and The Guardian’s U.S. edition had unionized, followed by progressive sites ThinkProgress and Jacobin in 2016, and Thrillist, The Intercept, Vice Media, and the multi-site company Vox Media in 2017.
And that was just the beginning. At least nine other marquee media names unionized in 2018, and a dozen more so far this year.
And the wave spread to print. In January 2018 workers at the Los Angeles Times voted 248-44 to unionize, for the first time in the paper’s 137-year history. The Chicago Tribune followed in May 2018, recognizing a union for the first time in its 171 years after more than 85 percent of its 280 journalists signed cards. Since then a dozen daily newspapers in Maryland, Virginia, Florida, Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming have unionized. So have print magazines like New York magazine, The New Yorker, and Fast Company.
Not that there weren’t setbacks and failures too. Some employers fought unionization. Joe Ricketts, billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade and patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, shut down the sites Gothamist and DNAinfo and laid off 115 workers in five cities a week after the sites New York workers voted to form a union in 2017.
Gawker itself went dark in August 2016 just months after signing a three-year union contract that guaranteed a $50,000 minimum salary, a successor clause, and union rights. The site was killed by a $140 million court judgment in a lawsuit over its having published video of Hulk Hogan having sex with his friend’s wife. But six other Gawker Media sites remain union under new ownership, including Jezebel, Gizmodo and Deadspin, and workers reached agreement with the latest owner, G/O Media, on a second collective bargaining agreement this March.
Nolan, who now reports at the G/O site Splinter News, says industry’s volatility is the biggest factor behind unionization.
“The biggest motivation for a lot of people is just wanting to have some level of stability, wanting to have a career instead of constantly being on this treadmill hopping from job to job, trying to hustle all the time to keep yourself afloat.”
The workforce is also bringing a distinctive agenda to union bargaining. Several newsrooms have negotiated diversity commitments from employers, in which they pledge to interview at least some minority applicants before each hiring decision. Protections against sexual harassment are also big. So are provisions intended to ensure editorial independence from owners’ business interests.
The wave of organizing is bringing not just members but new energy into two unions: Writers Guild of America (WGA) East and NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America (CWA).
WGA East is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO and a sister to the independent Hollywood union WGA West. Its core membership consists of about 4,000 writers in the television and film industries, but it has added over 1,000 members since the online media explosion began.
Meanwhile, the NewsGuild-CWA — known as the Newspaper Guild (TNG) until 2015 — was historically a union of print newspaper reporters. It too has added over 1,000 members since the union wave began.
The impacts may benefit the union movement overall. One side effect of the continuing wave is likely to be much more sympathetic and knowledgeable coverage of unions.
SEE THE CONTRACTS: Writers Guild of America East publishes all its collective bargaining agreements online.
A trickle, then a flood
- Ars Technica workers demanded union recognition March 29, 2019, and Condé Nast agreed to it on May 21. A news site about the scientific and technical world, its staff is entirely remote, so it’s the first digital media company to unionize workers located throughout the country without any central physical workplace.
- Buzzfeed workers signed cards and announced their union on Feb. 12, 2019.
- Workers at three Maryland newspapers – Capital Gazette, the Carroll County Times and the Baltimore Sun Media Group – won voluntary union recognition from their employer in December 2018.
- Casper Star-Tribune workers, in Casper, Wyoming, approved their first-ever collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 14, 2018.
- Chicago Tribune workers won voluntarily union recognition from their employer after more than 85 percent of the 280-person newsroom signed cards.
- Workers at the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Valley Advocate in Northampton, Mass., voted Dec. 12, 2018 to unionize.
- The Dodo editorial and video staff unionized in April 2018 and ratified a first contract in December. It’s a site devoted to animal videos.
- Fast Company voluntarily recognized its workers union on July 26, 2018, and signed a first contract July 23, 2019.
- Florida Times-Union workers announced their union in June 2018, following in the footsteps of workers at two other papers owned by GateHouse Media — Lakeland Ledger and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune who unionized in 2016.
- Fortune digital journalists announced their union March 29, 2019. The print side of the magazine has long been unionized.
- Gawker workers announced their union June 3, 2015, then voted 80 to 27 to unionize, and ratified their first contract in 2016. Gawker itself closed in August 2016, but the union continued for six sister sites, including Jezebel, Gizmodo and Deadspin and they ratified their second collective bargaining agreement this March.
- Gimlet Media which produces more than two dozen podcasts, became the first podcasting company to unionize when management agreed to recognize the union in May 2019.
- Guardian US edition workers voted 45-0 to unionize on June 30, 2015, and ratified their first contract in September 2017.
- Hartford Courant newspaper workers in Hartford, Connecticut, won voluntary recognition from owner Tribune Publishing on Feb. 16, 2019.
- Huffington Post voluntarily recognized its workers union in 2015 and ratified its first union contract January 2017.
- In These Times workers unionized at their progressive non-profit employer in 2014.
- The Intercept online investigative site recognized its workers union in April 2017, 4/17 and signed its first union contract in July 2018.
- Jacobin staff unionized in October 2016 and signed a first union contract January 2018.
- Law360 editorial staffers voted 109 to 9 to unionize in August 2016, and approved a first contract in December 2018. A subsidiary of LexisNexis, the site reports on legal matters.
- Los Angeles Times workers voted 248-44 to unionize in January 2018.
- Ziff Davis agreed in December 2018 to recognize a union at Mashable, Geek.com, AskMen, and PC Magazine.
- Mic voluntarily recognized its workers union in March 2018. But after Bustle Digital Group bought the company in December 2018, it laid off all the workers and moved to produce with freelancers and managers.
- Morning Call workers in Allentown, Pennsyvlania voted 31-12 on March 19, 2019 to unionize and are allying with other units of Chicago-based Tribune Publishing Co. to try to win a first contract.
- New Republic workers unionized in April 2018 and are currently in bargaining.
- New York magazine workers won voluntary union recognition Feb. 1, 2019 for 180 workers at the magazine and all of its respective online verticals — Vulture, the Cut, Intelligencer, Grub Street, and the Strategist.
- New Yorker magazine voluntarily recognized its workers union in June 2018.
- Omaha World Herald workers in Omaha, Nebraska voted 71-5 to unionize in October 2018.
- The Onion workers went public with their union on April 20, 2018 (4/20) with an announcement appropriate for the satirical magazine: “It’s Official: Onion Inc.’s Groveling, Ungrateful Staffers Unionize” The union includes workers at the A.V. Club, ClickHole, The Takeout, Onion Labs, and Onion Inc.’s art and video departments. They’re still trying to win a first contract.
- Pitchfork workers announced their union March 29, 2019, and Condé Nast agreed to recognize it on May 21.
- Refinery29 voluntarily recognized its workers union Jan. 25, 2019. The female-focused site covers news, fashion, beauty, entertainment, and wellness.
- Salon.com workers voted to unionize in 2015, and ratified their first collective bargaining agreement in November 2018.
- Slate workers voted 45-7 to unionize in January 2018 and won their first contract in December.
- Talking Points Memo workers announced their union in May 2018 and ratified their first union contract May 30, 2019.
- ThinkProgress news site signed its first union contract in June 2016, and a second contract in January 2019.
- Thrillist workers voted 56-3 to unionize in March 2017, and ratified their first union contract October 2018.
- Time magazine digital workers announced their union April 25, 2019, won union recognition June 7, and began bargaining July 30.
- Truthout, a nonprofit progressive website, unionized in 2009 and has been union ever since.
- Vice Media granted voluntary union recognition for its 430 employees in September 2017 and signed its first union contract in March 2019.
- Owner Tronc recognized a union in September 2018 for over 100 workers at the Virginian-Pilot, Daily Press, Virginia Gazette, and Tidewater Review, four Virginia newspapers.
- Vox Media agreed November 2017 to recognize a union for the 400 employees at all its online media outlets: Curbed, Eater, Recode, SB Nation, Racked, Polygon, The Verge and Vox. The two sides reached agreement on a first contract in June 2019.
- Wirecutter editorial staff announced a union in April 2019. Owner New York Times agreed to recognize it July 1. The site reports on and reviews gear and gadgets.