Gawker Media, hailed last year as the first major digital media shop to unionize, is still embroiled in contract negotiations. Ever since the gossip site joined up with the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE) in June — and inspired a wave of copycats at Salon, the Guardian US, Vice and others — media critics have speculated how unionized digital shops will look.
A leaked bargaining survey obtained by International Business Times provides a window: Although Gawker employees voted in favor of standard union demands like guaranteed salary minimums and increases, they also broke from legacy media contracts and voted against negotiating for a “just cause” provision, meant to guard against wrongful termination.
The bargaining survey was conducted by WGAE and circulated internally within Gawker’s newsroom last year.
When asked, “Would you prefer a contract that establishes ‘just cause,’ ” 68 percent of employees voted against and only about 20 percent in favor. About 11 percent weren’t sure or had no opinion.
The bargaining unit also appeared split over whether to bring in a diversity representative on behalf of the staff. Asked if they’d like a rep who could attend interviews and participate in hiring decisions, 34 percent of employees voted yes, 30 percent voted no, and 35 percent weren’t sure or had no opinion. The survey was taken before female ex-staffers spoke out in a highly critical piece on Gawker’s treatment of female employees last November, and before executive editor John Cook disclosed he was displeased with the newsroom’s current diversity level, roughly 78 percent white.
Finally, an odd detail on the worker-solidarity front: While most staffers voted to guarantee minimum rates for freelance writers, a rather strong 37 percent either voted against the idea or didn’t have an opinion.
Hamilton Nolan, the ex-writer and current editor who spearheaded the union drive, told IBT the “concerns and attitudes are built up over years.”
Generally, the union has been helpful and responsive, several Gawker employees told IBT. In December, staffers managed to keep the company from cutting both health benefits and a sabbatical program. They preserved a free healthcare option for at least one more year, significant for workers who have children on their health plans.
One employee said thanks to the WGAE, the staff will likely end up with much of what they want in terms of pay, severance and health benefits.
But why might a newsroom known for its left-wing slant, anti-establishment swagger and bombastic style vote against something like just cause?
It may be a generational thing. A year ago, a couple months before new media’s union boom, the Washington Post explored the priorities of the younger writers lining up to write and report on the internet. Not only do they occupy a different market than the old days, one where applicants far outnumber jobs and leverage against employers is reduced, they grew up in an age where union membership was in serious decline.
These young writers — just the kind Gawker attracts — are less familiar with labor laws, square-offs with management and the ethos of trade unions in general. In the smaller, more intimate offices of digital media startups, where everyone orders-in Chipotle, it’s harder to hold up the mantra, “your boss is not your friend.”
Gawker employees told IBT the majority of editorial staffers trust management to make hiring and firing decisions to keep the company moving smoothly. (Why they trust management there, but not on issues of salary and editorial freedom, remains unclear.)
One staffer told IBT the WGAE strongly urged employees to put just cause in their contract, but the majority simply didn't vote for it.
The WGAE did not respond to a request for comment.
It's a crucial detail that other shops after Gawker will have to confront. The president of the NewsGuild, WGAE’s rival that has locked down Guardian US, told IBT in October just cause should remain a basic part of any contract. “Every one of our contracts has a just cause provision. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of that, especially in a newsroom,” said Peter Szekely, a onetime reporter.
“When you’re talking about the news, there’s a diversity of opinions of how things should be covered,” Szekely said. “We want journalists in the newsrooms we represent to feel free to express themselves, and you can only really do that with confidence if you know your contract has a just cause provision and you can’t be thrown out the door.”
Sara Steffens, a former journalist in the Bay Area News Group in California and now secretary-treasurer of the CWA, parent union of the NewsGuild, said the provision could protect those digital writers caught up in the precarious business of aggregation where writers can take the fall for a business model that encourages copying other people’s work.
But the NewsGuild itself has had to make its own compromises in the internet age: The Daily Beast inherited NewsGuild membership in 2013 after its split from Newsweek (now a nonunionized property of IBT Media). After the divorce, the NewsGuild stipulated that, like journalists from other unionized shops, Beast reporters should be classified as hourly employees eligible for overtime.
Management put the kibosh on that and tagged several writers as “creative professionals” under the Fair Labor Standards Act, giving them a raise but invalidating them for overtime.
“We recognized the need of the company to have a workforce that was flexible,” the Guild’s rep for the Daily Beast told the Washington Post, echoing the language of the WGAE in its dealings with Gawker.
The Elephant in the Room
Gawker may be a unique media shop, but it's the first experiment in a native digital newsroom hammering out a contract and remains one to watch. Nolan explained the staff’s grievances in a post last March. “The final shape that the union might take, and who exactly will be in it, and what specific goals it will pursue all remain to be seen,” he wrote at the time.
A lot has happened since to affect the “shape” of the union, most notably the high-profile implosion at Gawker during the summer, which happened a short time after the bargaining survey. After Gawker’s executive board took down a universally maligned post that attempted to out a media executive as gay, writers on staff released a statement condemning the “breach of the firewall” between the editorial and business sides. Not long after, Editor-in-Chief Max Read and Executive Editor Tommy Craggs resigned in protest.
Perhaps as a result, Gawker’s union now puts editorial freedom as the central, driving, nonnegotiable principle at the heart of negotiations, staffers said. Securing the “firewall” between editorial and business apparently takes precedence over the diversity problems or the potential for layoffs or firings.