The Labor Movement Comes to Virtual Reality: Unionizing Digital Media

Kim Kelly’s first “real” job—outside of dishwashing, retail sales, and touring with metal bands as a merchandise person—was at Vice Media. Even that started out, she says, as “permalance” rather than full time. Her coworkers reached out to her about their union drive even before she had become a full-time employee and says, she was immediately on board. Two weeks later, they had signed union cards with the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), and shortly after, in 2015, they went public. Kelly found herself on the bargaining committee, working on a first contract. “Here we are and I am a union mom three and a half years later,” she says.

Vice is just one of over twenty media outlets that have unionized with either the WGAE or the NewsGuild–Communications Workers of America (NewsGuild-CWA) since 2015, including Gawker, Al Jazeera America, the New Yorker, Mic.com, the Los Angeles Times, Jacobin, Fast Company, The Onion, Vox Media, Slate, HuffPost, The Intercept, MTV News, and the latest addition, as of this writing, the fashion site Refinery29. These outlets are not all digital-only, but digital has shaped their structure in recent years as the news industry has whipsawed back and forth between crisis fueled by the continuing loss of advertising money, to boom times as big investors look to cash in on digital hype, and quick layoffs when their investors realize they are not going to strike it rich. Media jobs these days are characterized by precarity, low wages, always-on work cultures, low benefits, and the constant threat of mass firings—all while being required to live in the world’s most expensive cities. The union drives have been sparked by internal issues at each publication, but they have also fed off one another, creating industry-wide momentum that has not slowed with layoffs and even shop closures and has been a spot of rare good news for the labor movement as a whole. Unions, thanks to the young writers at these outlets, have become cool again.

Kelly comes from a union family—her father and uncles in construction, her father a steelworker, her mother and grandmother in schools—but had not imagined that working in media would be her opportunity to follow in her parents’ footsteps. “At that point, media didn’t really have unions,” she laughs.

I knew that the [New York] Times and all these old school traditional media had unions, but that was because they were real. I wrote about heavy metal on the internet. It just didn’t really occur to me until we started having these conversations—it opened up a lot of little doors in my head.

Sarah Jones, too, was committed to unions in principle before she got to act on that principle as a staff writer at The New Republic (TNR). “There were certain problems at TNR that made me particularly desirous of having [a union] there,” she says. There was turnover, of both low-level and top-level staff, that made every- one feel insecure. There were pay disparities among workers who did similar jobs that became more clear as more of the staff got involved in the union drive, and a lack of diversity. “We saw unionization as a way to make the workplace fairer.”

Then, there was the issue of TNR’s then-publisher Hamilton Fish, who resigned after women staffers came forward with complaints of sexual harassment. One of Jones’ coworkers asked her to meet for a drink and brought up the idea of unionizing; from there, they branched out to other colleagues and reached out to the NewsGuild. The complaints against Fish moved forward faster than the union drive because #MeToo was in the news. Still, as Jones notes, the union organizing continued, something that too few of the stories covering the #MeToo movement have noted.

Bargaining was ongoing at TNR when Jones left for a new job at New York magazine, where she found herself part of another union drive that had begun before she arrived. “All I needed to do was sign the card, which I was happy to do, and go to a few meetings,” she says, and the drive went public in December of 2018. At New York, as at TNR and Vice and most other media outlets that have unionized in the last five or so years, low wages (sometimes salaries less than $30,000 a year) were at issue, as well as job security and diversity.

Many of these publications, notes Nastaran Mohit, organizing director of the NewsGuild of New York, agree to voluntarily recognize the unions, saving the big guns for bargaining. For media outlets that are at least nominally progressive, she points out, it is bad for business to be seen union busting. Instead, during bargaining, she says, they will attempt to appeal to their millennial employees, claim an open-door policy, set up diversity committees, and meanwhile challenge the size of the bargaining unit and other typical tactics.

Still, they have been more successful than not. “Being more involved and immersed in the broader labor movement, I learned what spoiled brats we are because we got recognized in an hour,” Kelly laughs.

Our first bargaining stretched to nine months and we were like, “Oh my god. This is the longest that it has ever happened in the world.” Meanwhile, one of our organizer friends was like, “Yeah, I tried to organize a chicken processing plant in the South for five years and it still didn’t take.” We were like, “Oh…”

In the first contract at Vice in 2016, Kelly says, they were mostly focused on money because their salaries had been so low—there were people on staff making less than $30,000 a year, certainly not a livable wage in New York City. In that first contract, they won minimum annual salaries of $45,000 and across-the-board raises of 14 to 20 percent. The second time around, the bargaining process that wrapped up in 2018, she says, “I think our bigger focus was on the cultural. Trying to do things that would impact people’s lives outside of the contract.” They pushed on diversity, harassment, getting “gold-standard” trans-inclusive healthcare and language in the contract around respecting people’s gender pronouns. They won better severance, up to sixteen weeks for longtime employees, and protections for freelancers, including a committee that will meet regularly to discuss freelancers’pay concerns. “Freelancer protection and severance were big battles that we fought hard for, given the state of this terrible industry,” Kelly says.

Even with union contracts, Kelly notes, there is a lot of turnover in the media. That has meant that as people have left, she is, as she says, “union mom.” What that means is that

keeping and growing the union in those years in between and keeping it running. Nagging people to come to our diversity committee meetings, nagging people to come to our other meetings, nagging people to come to labor management [committee meetings] and tell me what they need. I do a lot of nagging, a lot of yelling, and a lot of loving.

Love is an important part of the equation because workers in media are often told that ours is a labor of love, yet that comes along with, too often, rock-bottom salaries and non-existent benefits, always-on schedules and expectation of “brand-building” on social media in our off time. That labor of love language is often mobilized by the boss to tell workers they do not need a union—in announcing a round of layoffs at BuzzFeed, for example, company CEO Jonah Peretti, who had previously argued that unionization was not “right for BuzzFeed,” wrote in a memo, “I care about the people at BuzzFeed more than anything other than my family.” Unionizing, though, has been a way that workers can turn some of their love for their work into solidarity.

That love for her coworkers, Kelly says, also has meant identifying the next generation of “union moms.” “I am not going to be here forever, Lord knows,” she said. “It is kind of trying to replace yourself, too. There are a couple of people who, after this process, make me think, ‘My kids will be okay. You got it. You are good at this.’” Her words proved prophetic: shortly after this conversation, the layoff wave hit Vice and took Kelly, along with 10 percent of staff, with it. Yet the union she built both ensures she gets some severance pay and has left the work- place stronger in her wake.

In an industry that can be so individual, coming together and building a community is often the most important and meaningful part of the union drive.

In the Beginning

The first digital newsroom to organize was in fact Truthout, which was entirely online, in 2010. To Maya Schenwar—at the time the union drive began in 2008, a senior editor and now the publication’s editor-in-chief—it was partly that virtual newsroom that made unionizing important. “There’s an assumption that ‘working from home’ must always be awesome—you have so much freedom,” she says.

I can’t count the number of times someone has remarked to me, “It must be great to be able to clean your house whenever you want!” The number of times I have wanted to clean my apartment while working from home over the past eleven- plus years is exactly zero. But for many of us, working from home manifested as never not working—always needing to be available, and often working long hours that would look absurd if we were physically doing that work in an office.

These issues, she says, were not being confronted by the labor movement at the time. When she first reached out to organizer Shannon Duffy at the Newspaper Guild (now the United Media Guild), he told her that Truthout would be the first online-only news organization to unionize, and the country’s first virtual card check:

It occurred to us that this went beyond Truthout—that we had an opportunity to help shift the labor winds for a much wider group of journalists who were working from home and feeling isolated, for whom organizing didn’t yet feel like an option.

But the online-only nature also presented unique problems. “We didn’t have a basement we could all meet in, we couldn’t get together and chat at lunch,” Schenwar says. And since their cell phones were given to them by Truthout, they did not want to use those either. Skype and Google Docs, which they already used for work, became organizing tools, and she remembers giving her partner’s phone number to Duffy to take organizing calls. It also necessitated building stronger relationships before revealing the in-progress union drive to coworkers: “When we gathered for bargaining after the union was recognized, it was my first time meeting several of my coworkers.” The union’s first contract was finalized in 2010, and Schenwar, now in management, says, “The presence of the union has, over the years, made [Truthout] stronger.”

Truthout was not the only media outlet to organize in that interim period (full disclosure: I was part of the drive that organized a union at In These Times magazine in 2014). But, the floodgates really burst open after Gawker Media’s union campaign was announced in 2015. The popular series of websites, known for irreverent humor and a take-no-prisoners style, did its union drive the way it did everything: out loud and in public. Writers were arguing on Twitter and other social media sites with one another; they blogged about their own union on the website where they worked.

Megan McRobert began as an organizer at the WGAE shortly after the wave began at that union with Gawker, and then continued with Salon, ThinkProgress, and Vice and HuffPost, which was her first campaign. She says that the media campaigns taught the union a lot about organizing tactics. On the campaign at Fusion (now Splinter and merged with the former Gawker properties since the purchase of Gawker Media by Univision, Fusion’s parent company), McRobert recalls not wanting to have the organizing committee use the digital conversation platform Slack for organizing:

We thought, “No, it is going to give a platform for antis. Someone could copy and paste that and send it to the boss.” But eventually a committee member just looked at us and said, “We are journalists. We know how to protect our sources and we understand the risks. Slack makes sense in our workplace and we are starting one.” Now we have Slack on every single campaign.

Part of the task, she says, is to figure out what to hold on to and what to be flexible on. One- on-one conversations and a strong organizing committee are as important as they have been in traditional union organizing, but the media workers have been more comfortable with a campaign that has played out more publicly and transparently.

Mohit, who notes that before 2015, the NewsGuild had not really organized since the 1990s, instead riding out a wave of cutbacks and layoffs in newspapers, says it has been exciting to really see unions putting resources into organizing:

How many times are we going to read the statistics on declining union membership? Nobody wants to be part of a failed American experiment. They want to be part of something that is going to be successful and it is going to be new and there is an actual opportunity there. Seeing that in the public eye was a really crucial turning point, because it took seeing other workers visibly succeeding at the process of organizing to open up the possibility that it might actually work in your workplace.

She has also watched the traditional news outlets that the NewsGuild represents change, to become more digital heavy, to want to hire more “voice-y” young writers cutting their teeth in places like Gawker: “Those traditional lines that have been drawn have broken down because bosses understand that they need to appeal to a new audience and it is not going to be that 80-year-old New Yorker reader.” That has meant a changing culture and an opening to diversify these outlets—but a superficial commitment to diversity means nothing if queer writers, if writers of color are not paid enough to survive or valued at the workplace every day.

Setting Boundaries

Social media, after all, has become such an important part of the job for media workers in the past decade. Writers are hired now with the expectation that their Twitter following is part of the appeal, yet social media also has become a new way that writers are expected to always be working. It has meant, Mohit says, figuring out how to put language in contracts around social media expectations, including whether a company can claim ownership of an employee’s social media or whether it can demand a worker use her own social media to promote the company. It has also meant massive publicity on social media for unions. McRobert adds that it has meant also figuring out what kind of bar- gaining unit makes sense in constantly changing media outlets; when Facebook changed its algorithm to privilege video, for example, many news outlets began pushing into video, so what happens when someone who previously was a writer is now producing a web series? “Figuring out what is the most powerful union while also having a legitimate community of interest or a group of people that should sit at the table together is challenging.” That also includes geography—as Schenwar notes, it is difficult to get people together when they work digitally across time zones.

The Vice union, Kelly says, used testimonials from members during bargaining:

One of our bargaining committee members, she gave a really impassioned, really intense testimony about healthcare. She is trans and she spoke about having to navigate healthcare at this company and being told that things that are medically necessary for her aren’t covered.

For Jones, one of the key things that has changed about media is the “assembly line of content.” The picture many would-be writers have of life at a place like TNR or the New Yorker might be lovingly crafting well-reported ten thousand–word features, but the reality is, “you have to put up multiple posts a day and you have got to get clips and you have got to worry about [search engine optimization] and you have got to worry about your Twitter brand.” This pressure, she says, is especially falling on younger staffers. Social media, Mohit agrees, “is really integral to the newsroom, but they still treat [the workers] like a bunch of little girls and they don’t pay them accordingly.”

“Younger staffers are probably organizing more because we grew up in the midst of and in the wake of the recession so we have never really known economic security and we don’t see a clear path to achieving that in the industry without significant structural change to it,” Jones adds. “So, unionization appears to be the only way to accomplish this.”

Journalists, too, have a skill set that lends itself to contentious organizing drives, Mohit points out. “The entire LA Times campaign rolled out in that almost surreal fashion because the organizing committee and the main organizers on that campaign were also some of the best investigative journalists in the country and they got to work investigating their bosses.” They treated the organizing drive like it was investigative reporting, uncovering a $5 million a year consulting contract paid from the Times’ parent company Tronc to another company owned by the Tronc chairman, and that made the difference. The skepticism reporters are trained to have, she notes, helps them when it comes to anti-union consultants, captive audience meetings, and sweet talk from the boss as well.

It has also meant that they are rigorous in choosing the union, looking into the contracts won by the different unions and how drives have unfolded. With two unions based in New York City putting resources into organizing media workers, there have been inevitable tensions, but it has undoubtedly also spurred more work and more investment as well.

All that investment has paid off in maintaining momentum, even though there have been some doomsday scenarios—the shuttering of Al Jazeera America, the sale and merger of Gawker, the closing of DNAinfo and Gothamist—in direct response to the unionization there, Mohit says—and now the shutdown and sale of Mic, the layoffs at BuzzFeed and Vice and elsewhere.

The media has seen plenty of layoffs even at outlets that remain strong, and this is not of course a new trend in the industry, but it still can halt a promising drive in its tracks. “There was a time several years ago where [media] looked really promising to venture capitalists,” Mohit notes, but when those profits do not materialize, they think nothing of getting out and letting reporters be the collateral damage. “Now, all of this capital is being pulled out,” she says.

So, yes, we are going to see a lot of layoffs. But, this also has happened within media. It is going to churn through a lot of young journalists and it is going to mean that it is going to be difficult for us to move forward with a lot of these things. At the same time there are many media companies who are doing really, really well. It is a lot of the digital media companies, obviously, that were overvalued and so the bubble is bursting.

At Mic.com, for example, where a news site that aimed specifically at hiring and reaching a diverse base, the crash was devastating, but, she says,

We knew that Mic was on very shaky ground and we knew that there was a chance that Mic could shut down, but that didn’t stop people. They came here every single Wednesday night or Thursday night and they just loved being together and fighting for better.

The closures, she says, wound up firing people up to organize more.

Ripple Effects

Organizing in media has attracted a lot of attention—and it has, too, shaped the coverage that unions get. “We would always joke about it that journalists do love to write about themselves, but it is true,” Mohit says. It has also meant that issues like “right-to-work,” which often go unexplained or glossed in the press, now make more sense to reporters—Slate, for instance, waged a months-long battle to keep a right-to- work clause out of their contract, even taking a strike vote over the issue and eventually winning a contract with union security.

“It is funny, two of the topics I have probably written about most—first as a freelancer and now as somebody who is in journalism full-time—are religion and labor and those are two subjects that I don’t think mainstream publications have taken seriously for a long time,” Jones says. But she does see the labor issue, at least, changing. Media workers are starting to see themselves as akin to striking teachers, as in solidarity with the workers of the Fight for $15. Mohit adds,

This is a whole generation of workers that are coming into the professional world at the same time that all of their colleagues in other industries are facing the same challenges of not being able to pay your rent, being saddled with student debt, looking at the entire country crumble around you, the healthcare system, the education system, the public transportation system, and this is a generation that is fighting all of these different things on multiple fronts.

And that media organizing, Mohit says, has meant other industries that might have seen themselves as white-collar, as laborers of love, are now reaching out to the union—workers in the tech sector and games industry.

This goes back to the question of “What are unions going to do to step up to the plate?” We know that young workers want to organize en masse. What are unions doing to organize these industries and organize these young people?

Even downwardly mobile people with degrees from Ivy League universities and wealthy parents in the suburbs—who might even be paying their rent so that they can work a high-prestige low-pay job—are feeling the pinch, and beginning to see themselves as workers. “It is sort of like a hot house class consciousness,” Kelly says. “We are growing it and that is opening people up to thinking about things in different ways.”

The mission-driven nature of journalism, that labor of love, has made it easy for years to convince young people, in particular, to work harder for less money. Mohit, who used to organize nurses and domestic workers, compares it to caring work and compares her own job to it as well.

Like any other job, that care and compassion can be exploited by your employer. The line between personal and professional is so muddied. It is hard to know when to draw the line. It is hard to get people to understand, “Turn your phone off. Don’t answer your boss. It is the weekend. Don’t answer them.”

The union, as Kelly says above, is a place where the workers can build a community that is for their own benefit, not for their bosses’ exploitation. In media, McRobert says, that has meant a real sense of ownership over the union. They show up, they put in the work, they are willing to challenge the old ways of doing business that do not make sense to them, and at the end of it, they come out with something strong and valuable.

To Kelly and Jones, both, the most important thing has been to watch their coworkers under- stand that their work has value and that value is being captured by someone else who benefits from their time on Twitter and their weekends on the clock. Asked for final words, Jones simply says, “Journalists are workers and workers need a union.”