How a Strong Union Can Stanch the Bleeding in a Digital Media Bloodbath

by Kim Kelly, WGA East

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One sunny Friday in early February, an HR person at the corporate “youth media” behemoth I had been working for since 2014 called me up and unceremoniously informed me I had been terminated. The timing wasn’t exactly ideal, yet wasn’t much of a surprise: a fellow reporter had unintentionally broken the news about the company’s ‘global restructuring’ to me earlier that day (ironically, by requesting comment on how much notice workers had been given of the oncoming cuts—as if they had given us notice about this or any other major company development).

I had been anxiously following the slow-moving bloodbath on Twitter and spent the day glued to my phone, reading panicked emails and getting text updates from our union committee at work, who’d gathered in a conference room to provide support and solidarity to those who felt the axe. I wasn’t there, because my partner and I were in Atlanta, GA for a counter-protest against a Klan rally; tensions around me were already a tad high, and an awkward HR phone call was the last thing I needed. Yet, the call came.

The first person I texted about the news was my Dad. Then, I called my union.

“They finally got me. What do I do now?” I asked my rep, who feels more like an older brother to me by now, and was immediately reassured to hear that the union’s lawyers were already in touch with the company and were hammering out severance details. Ultimately, the joke was on them, because I’d been very transparently preparing to exit the company to pursue freelance opportunities (and finally free myself from the myriad horrors and indignities of working in an office like that one). However, 249 of my co-workers and colleagues had also been laid off, and many of them were caught completely flat-footed. We had all assumed that layoffs were coming, of course; after all, this is digital media in 2019 and a number of other high-profile media companies (HuffPo, Buzzfeed) had made sweeping cuts to their workforce only days before.

A crucial editorial executive had just unexpectedly quit, and there were rumors about other coming changes that made our stomachs twist. A hiring freeze kept us overworked, overburdened, underpaid, and uncertain. During the contract negotiations we’d just wrapped up, the company’s representatives had refused to give us any real answer on what the next few months held, only saying that, “they can’t predict the future,” whenever we’d press them about layoffs. That’s part of why we fought like hell to increase our severance benefits (something we ultimately won in the contracts that our four bargaining units signed at the end of December 2018) and why we spent so much time building a strong, engaged, accessible union at our workplace, because we knew that the only people we could ultimately count on were ourselves and each other.

The same drama has played out across the industry for the past few years, thanks to a number of factors. Those factors include Google and Facebook’s monopoly on online ad dollars, Facebook’s algorithmic lies throttling digital media publishers’ ability to reach their audiences, and the ensuing, now-infamous ‘pivot to video’ that swept and then strangled numerous publications in the past two years, as well as a generally hostile environment towards the press (bolstered by the fascist-in-chief) and the eternal fact that, under capitalism, no worker is every truly safe and no rich person (no matter how many awards they rake in or pop culturally significant mansions they buy) ever feels that they are truly rich enough.

We saw it happen to DNAinfo and Gothamist, whose noxious (and very racist!) billionaire owner Joe Ricketts destroyed the companies rather than suffer his employees’ successful attempt to unionize. We’re seeing it play out with Gizmodo Media Group, whose owner Univision seems intent on ridding itself of multiple sites like Gizmodo, Jezebel, Deadspin, Lifehacker, Splinter, The Root, Kotaku, Earther, Jalopnik, The Onion, Clickhole, The A.V. Club and The Takeout in a slow-burning fire sale. We saw it happen at Vox Media Inc., Refinery29 and Mic last year. And we saw it at Vice Media less than two weeks ago, when new CEO Nancy Dubuc saw fit to lay off 250 workers across the company in the name of “global restructuring.”

It’s hard to find a silver lining amidst all the gloom, but there is one thing that I and so many other casualties of the digital media crisis have been able to turn to for help and support: our union. The Writers Guild of America, East has organized over 1,500 digital media workers since 2015, and have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to fight for the rights of their members during wave after wave of staff layoffs. The WGAE represents digital media staff at Vox Media, VICE, HuffPost, Refinery29, Onion Inc., Thrillist, The Dodo, The Intercept, ThinkProgress, MTV News, Salon, Slate, Talking Points Memo, Fast Company, and Gizmodo Media Group, many of whom have undergone layoffs since the union first got involved.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of WGAE and I was elected to the WGAE Council, the Guild’s governing body)

As a result, the WGAE are old hands at this by now, and are scarily adept at forcing the devils in the corner office to hand out fair deals to those affected. Those of us in WGAE-represented shops know that help, guidance, and love (we’re a very cozy union!) is only a phone call or a text away, and that our union’s lawyers will stop at nothing to get us the best deals possible, whether they’re negotiating buyouts a la Gawker Media, winning “very substantial” severance deals for former Gothamist and DNAinfo workers, or working to improve Vice Media’s severance offers to former staff. The News Guild also represents a number of digital media workers, and have surely been working just as hard to fight for their own members’ interests in this volatile industry.

As Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, East, said when asked for comment, “One of the Guild’s role is to ease the pain during an extremely difficult time. As soon as our team learns of forthcoming layoffs, we set up shop in the newsroom to walk members through the layoff process, from educating them about their rights and answering all questions to reviewing collectively bargained severance agreements and negotiating on the spot for those who have yet to ratify a first union contract. We’ll continue to act as a resource for members who lost their job, putting out word to other shop to learn about job openings, and fight for those who are expected to work through these high-stress ordeals.”

My former company decided to follow Buzzfeed’s example—which was itself the result of workers’ collective organizing at the union-averse company, prior to Buzzfeed News employees’ recent announcement that they are unionizing—and offer more severance than had been dictated by our new contract—a PR move by a PR-obsessed entity that, for once, benefited the workers. Without the union, though, we’d have been left essentially powerless post-layoff, with no legal team going to bat for us, no clear notion of what rights we even had, and no community support. Situations like this are why digital media workers need to throw themselves into organizing now, whether that’s by unionizing their own workplaces or getting involved in solidarity efforts with other freelancers. A strong union cannot prevent layoffs, but it can provide invaluable support and resources (as well as giving unionized workers an opportunity to ensure that a robust severance package is part of their contract) if and when said layoffs happen.

Don’t wait for the hammer to fall—join together with your fellow workers to build a shield wall against the bosses’ cruelty. We are and will always be stronger together.

Kim Kelly is a freelance writer and a labor columnist for Teen Vogue. You can follow her on Twitter at @GrimKim.

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