Gawker, where new me­dia and old la­bor in­ter­sect

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Steven Green­house s union Steven Green­house was the New York Times’ la­bor and work­place re­porter from 1995 to 2014. He is the au­thor of “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the Amer­i­can Worker.”

Amem­ber­ship de­clines, even mod­est union­iza­tion ef­forts take on sym­bolic im­por­tance. Each case seems like a sign of things to come. Suc­cess or fail­ure at the in­di­vid­ual level seems to por­tend suc­cess or fail­ure for the broader move­ment.

That’s why sup­port­ers and op­po­nents of or­ga­nized la­bor snapped to at­ten­tion when work­ers at Gawker — a popular, youth­driven news and gos­sip web­site that spe­cial­izes in snarky com­men­tary — an­nounced the firstever union­iza­tion drive at a ma­jor on­line me­dia com­pany. Gawker’s 119 full-time staffers will vote Wed­nes­day on whether to join the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­ica.

If the union­iza­tion ef­fort suc­ceeds, it will be a big PR boost for the ail­ing la­bor move­ment. It will show that unions, which have fo­cused in re­cent years on or­ga­niz­ing low-wage work­ers, can also at­tract hip, highly ed­u­cated work­ers, many of them Ivy League grad­u­ates. But if Gawker staffers re­ject the union, it will be an em­bar­rass­ing blow to la­bor, es­pe­cially be­cause so much of the Gawker de­bate has been out in the open.

The Gawker union­iza­tion drive shows that many young peo­ple sup­port a union for the same rea­sons that many of their par­ents and grand­par­ents did decades ago, when or­ga­nized la­bor was far stronger. The Gawker work­ers — who in­clude writ­ers at sis­ter blogs Dead­spin, Jezebel and Giz­modo, among oth­ers — say that hav­ing a union will as­sure min­i­mum salary lev­els and regular raises, im­prove health cov­er­age and ma­ter­nity benefits, and cre­ate a griev­ance pro­ce­dure.

In an­nounc­ing the union­iza­tion drive, Hamil­ton Nolan, a se­nior writer at Gawker, seemed to be chan­nel­ing Sa­muel Gom­pers. “Ev­ery work­place could use a union,” Nolan wrote. “A union is the only real mech­a­nism that ex­ists to rep- re­sent the in­ter­ests of em­ploy­ees in a com­pany. A union is also the only real mech­a­nism that en­ables em­ploy­ees to join to­gether to bar­gain col­lec­tively, rather than as a bunch of sep­a­rate, pow­er­less en­ti­ties.”

The Gawker ef­fort is un­usual in nu­mer­ous ways, start­ing with the fact that its sup­port­ers say Gawker is cur­rently a good place to work. Many say they want a union as a sort of in­sur­ance pol­icy in case the next gen­er­a­tion of man­agers is not so nice. “We’re in a very good place right now,” wrote Anna Mer­lan, a Jezebel writer, in an on­line de­bate about union­iz­ing. “But we also ex­ist in a bub­ble. When it bursts, I’d like us to have fair la­bor prac­tices in place to pro­tect ev­ery­one and pro­vide for them in the event of ‘down­siz­ing.’ ”

In an­other twist, the com­pany has not op­posed the union­iza­tion drive; in­deed, Gawker’s founder, Nick Den­ton, said he was “in­tensely re­laxed” about it. The com­pany and the Writ­ers Guild East even is­sued a joint state­ment: “We be­lieve the cum­ber­some and of­ten frac­tious process of union­iza­tion is premised on an as­sump­tion of com­plete an­tag­o­nism be­tween man­age­ment and la­bor. Noth­ing of the kind ex­ists at Gawker Me­dia.”

Their state­ment added, “We hope the la­bor drive at Gawker Me­dia, cul­mi­nat­ing in the June 3 elec­tion, can serve as a new model for co­op­er­a­tion in dig­i­tal me­dia.”

Many union sup­port­ers at Gawker say a big rea­son to union­ize is to set an ex­am­ple for other on­line me­dia com­pa­nies whose work­ers are not treated as well.

That Gawker is not bat­tling the ef­fort would make a union de­feat all the more em­bar­rass­ing. That was the case last year when the United Au­to­mo­bile Work­ers nar­rowly lost a union­iza­tion vote at Volk­swa­gen’s as­sem­bly plant in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., even though the com­pany hadn’t op­posed union­iza­tion.

As at Volk­swa­gen, some Gawker work­ers have made known their deep-seated aver­sion to unions. In the on­line de­bate, Kevin Draper, a Dead­spin writer, de­rided the Writ­ers Guild, say­ing it “want[s] my money and a feather in the cap” — mean­ing boasting rights to be first to union­ize a dig­i­tal me­dia com­pany. A few staffers com­plained that the union­iza­tion drive had caused a surge of ugly di­vi­sive­ness (although union op­po­nents seemed to be toss­ing around most of the in­vec­tive). Oth­ers said that the com­mu­ni­ca­tions ef­forts by the cam­paign’s lead­ers and the Writ­ers Guild were of­ten in­ad­e­quate and stum­bling.

One fac­tor buoy­ing the Gawker ef­fort is that young Amer­i­cans seem drawn to ac­tivism and col­lec­tive ac­tion — whether it’s the Fight for $15, Black Lives Mat­ter or the move­ment to have uni­ver­si­ties di­vest their oil and gas hold­ings. A Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll found that young Amer­i­cans have far more fa­vor­able views of la­bor unions than do any other age group. Fifty-five per­cent of Amer­i­cans age 18 to 29 said they had a fa­vor­able view of unions, com­pared with 29% un­fa­vor­able. For older age groups, 46% said they have a fa­vor­able view, com­pared with 40% to 43% un­fa­vor­able.

That poll brought unions some promis­ing news, but there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween hav­ing a fa­vor­able opin­ion of unions and ac­tu­ally want­ing to join one. Wed­nes­day’s vote at Gawker will help show whether la­bor lead­ers can bridge that gap.

There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween lik­ing unions — and join­ing one.

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