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More Secure Jobs, Bigger Paychecks

What’s driving the new wave of unionization sweeping digital newsrooms? The reasons for unionizing haven’t changed much in the last 80 years

Photograph by William Mebane

It was 1933, and the Great Depression was pummeling the newspaper industry. The New York World, once owned by Joseph Pulitzer and the city’s largest paper, had closed two years earlier, throwing 3,000 people out of work. In many cities, newspapers had cut reporters’ pay by a third, far more than that of union-protected typesetters and printers. Seeing many journalist friends get pounded financially, Heywood Broun, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and at the time one of the nation’s best-known and best-paid columnists, took it upon himself to spearhead an effort to unionize his fellow “hacks.” In August of that year, Broun, who wrote for the New York World–Telegram, turned one of his nationally syndicated columns into a rallying cry: “The fact that newspaper editors and owners are genial folk should hardly stand in the way of the organization of a newspaper writers’ union. There should be one.”

Broun’s column was like rain on parched soil. Within two months, chapters of the American Newspaper Guild sprouted in New York, Boston, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Duluth, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia. In April 1934, the Guild signed its first contract—it was with The Philadelphia Record and included provisions on maximum hours, overtime, a minimum pay scale, and paid vacations. By June, 10 months after Broun’s first column, the Guild had 7,000 members, with 125 delegates from 70 papers attending the union’s first convention that month.

In addition to pushing for better pay and job security, many reporters in the Newspaper Guild’s early days were looking for guarantees that they could do their work without powerful publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Frank Gannett, a fierce critic of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, pressing them to tilt their journalism to the right. Ben Scott, a senior adviser at New America who wrote his dissertation on the Newspaper Guild’s early years, says its founding “was all about creating a way to wall off the integrity of professional journalists from the political interests and concerns of the publishers.”

One reason that Broun—once described by labor historian Christopher Phelps as a “big-hearted, gin-imbibing, lumbering bear of a man”—insisted on calling the new group a “guild” was to mollify newspaper editors and reporters who thought unions were only for the blue-collar proletariat. In the 1930s, even though many journalists didn’t have college degrees, many viewed themselves as part of a “professional elite.” Broun sought to convince them otherwise. “The men who make up the papers of this country would never look upon themselves as what they really are—hacks and white-collar slaves,” he wrote, adding: “Any attempt to unionize leg, rewrite, desk or makeup men would be laughed to death by these editorial hacks themselves. Union? Why, that’s all right for dopes like printers, not for smart guys like newspaper men!” (Broun’s sexist language was typical of the time, when discrimination was rampant and few women worked as reporters.) Broun noted that those “dopes,” i.e., the unionized printers, were “getting on an average some 30 percent better than the smart fourth estaters,” while “the ‘smart’ editorial department boys will continue to work forty-eight hours a week because they love to hear themselves referred to as ‘professionals’ and because they consider unionization as lowering their dignity.” Broun wrote:

“Obviously, the publishers, by patting their fathead employees on the head and calling them ‘professionals,’ hope to maintain this working week scale. And they’ll succeed, for the men who made up the editorial staffs of the country are peculiarly susceptible to such soothing classifications as ‘professionals,’ ‘journalists,’ ‘members of the fourth estate,’ ‘gentlemen of the press,’ and other terms.”

The American Newspaper Guild was established in an era when unions were mushrooming across the US, spurred by two New Deal laws, the National Industrial Recovery Act—a 1933 law that was declared unconstitutional—and then the National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935. Back then, many publishers—unlike most of today’s digital companies—aggressively resisted unionization. The Associated Press fired a reporter, Morris Watson, for his pro-union activity, and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In one of the pivotal, a-switch-in-time-saves-nine cases upholding New Deal legislation, the high court ruled that Watson had been fired illegally and should be reinstated. In that 1937 case, Associated Press v. NLRB, the Justices rejected the publishers’ arguments that their freedom of the press was being violated by federal laws that protected workers’ right to unionize and bargain collectively.

Heywood Broun, columnist who proposed the first “newspaper writers’ union,” which later became the NewsGuild. Image courtesy NewsGuild.

In 1938, Hearst’s Chicago Herald-Examiner and Chicago Evening-American fired several union supporters in an effort to defeat an organizing drive. Those firings sparked a 15-month strike in which Hearst management employed hardball anti-union tactics not uncommon in the first half of that century. Thugs working for management shoved a Guild officer’s car into the Chicago River, and later did likewise to a union sound car. A Guild officer was beaten entering his home, and the Guild’s Chicago office was burglarized, its membership files taken. Guild strikers told of management having drivers back up their trucks against the picket lines, race their engines, and choke them with the exhaust—all before the drivers beat them with clubs and rubber hoses. Hearst, hurt badly by the strike, shut down the Herald-Examinerin 1939 and merged it into the Evening-American, creating the Chicago Herald-American.

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Now, eight decades later, journalists are again rushing to unionize—this time in digital media. More than 2,000 editorial employees have unionized at Slate, Salon, HuffPost, Vice, Vox, The Root, The Intercept, The Daily Beast, and other news websites. Unlike in the 1930s, two unions are vying for these workers: the NewsGuild (Broun’s American Newspaper Guild renamed itself the Newspaper Guild in 1970, and with newsprint on the wane, again renamed itself the NewsGuild in 2015) and the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE).

Although WGAE and NewsGuild officials don’t like to discuss it, there is an undeniable competition between the two unions in wooing digital workers. The two unions have their pitches. The WGAE boasts that it is hipper and less traditional and has attracted far more digital journalists; the NewsGuild says it has far more experience representing journalists. While many labor leaders say such competition is harmful, it has inarguably intensified and accelerated efforts to unionize journalists.

For all of the changes in journalism since Broun’s call to arms, today’s journalists are streaming into unions for many of the same reasons as reporters in the 1930s: poor wages, long hours, skimpy benefits, and worries about layoffs. “It’s the same issues that motivate people to unionize throughout history: How are they treated, how are they paid, what are the benefits?” says Linda Foley, who was president of the Newspaper Guild from 1995 to 2008. “And there’s always a job security component.”

Another parallel: Many of today’s digital journalists, like their predecessors in the 1930s, are keen to have a union to help ensure they can do their work insulated from pressures by business interests or advertisers. Nowadays, many also want to ensure that their websites have a clear line between journalistic content and so-called sponsored or native content.

Many of today’s digital journalists, like their predecessors, are keen to have a union to help ensure they can do their work insulated from pressure by business interests or advertisers.

There are, of course, many big differences between today’s digital unionization and the ferment that gave birth to the Newspaper Guild. Today’s digital companies are far more reluctant to fire employees involved in unionization efforts, WGAE and NewsGuild officials say, even though managers in many other industries often do so to derail organizing drives. In this age of social media, digital executives know that if they fire journalists for supporting a union, Twitter will be ablaze with the news, and their websites and reputations will take a battering—especially when many news websites, and their readers, tilt to the left.

The egregious exception was local news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist, owned by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade, where management warned staff that if they unionized, he might close them down. Ricketts made good on that threat when he shuttered both this past November, after 25 of 27 DNAinfo and Gothamist staffers in New York voted to join the WGAE.

The Gawker unionization campaign—and its fevered, very public online debate on the subject—showed that digital organizing would be different in at least one major way from that of unionizing journalists in the past century. It would be infinitely more public because of social media. The same factor also often makes organizing drives faster, quickening the processes of both winning support within the company and obtaining public backing. Eric Vilas-Boas, an editor at Thrillist, says social media gave a big boost to the staff’s union drive. “One benefit of the public nature of our campaign was that we have a lot of colleagues in the industry who have very vocal platforms on Twitter,” Vilas-Boas says. “That helps to make things shorter and more public immediately.”

Lowell Peterson, the executive director of the WGAE, says today’s digital journalists insist on transparency and engagement during unionization drives, and the result “has changed the way we organize.” “We have to move fast,” Peterson adds. “Once it goes digital, it’s public. It happens much more quickly, and we have to escalate the process for recognition [from the company] much earlier than in traditional organizing.”

Digital media’s contract negotiations often focus on issues that would have hardly crossed the minds of Newspaper Guild bargainers in that union’s early days. Today’s digital journalists often insist on contract provisions that call for greater diversity—more hiring of people of color, women, LGBTQ journalists, and people with disabilities. Some of the contracts call for periodic meetings with management to discuss progress on diversity. This is a sharp departure from organized labor’s early decades, when many unions excluded those groups.

Another prominent issue in the industry today is disparity in pay: One writer in a newsroom might make $37,000, and another with similar experience and responsibilities might make $52,000. To narrow such disparities, Gawker’s contract established $50,000 minimum pay for writers and $70,000 for senior writers and editors.

In another departure from decades past, Grant Glickson, the president of the NewsGuild’s New York chapter, says digital journalists are eager for unions to push for work-family balance. “People are working around the clock,” Glickson says. “It’s harder on people because of the technology, having to turn in three or four stories a day. So much is being expected of you.” Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, puts it another way, saying that in digital journalism, there is much more of a “hamster-wheel effect,” and a “relentless demand for new content” than existed in older newsrooms.

The Gawker contract contained a provision that would never have been included in traditional newspaper contracts. It doesn’t say employees can only be dismissed “for cause.” They instead remain at-will employees, which means they can be fired at any time for any reason or no reason at all. This provision has become one of the largest differences between the WGAE and the NewsGuild: Unlike its rival, the NewsGuild says it won’t accept a contract without a “for cause” provision. Gawker’s employees didn’t push for that provision because they viewed journalism as a field in which there were often creative differences between editors and writers. Many felt that editors should be able to fire people if there were serious creative differences between them, so long as the contract provided good severance.

Layoffs at Thrillist and Vice, which was next to unionize after Gawker, helped spur unionization at those websites because staffers wanted severance, and clear guidelines on layoffs. Kim Kelly, a music editor at Vice, says low salaries were another big factor—some writers there earned about $35,000 before unionization. Referring to Shane Smith, Vice’s founder and CEO, Kelly says, “When you’re reading that Shane was building a $23 million mansion and you’re struggling to afford subway fare, that will have an impact on wanting to unionize.” Kelly says some websites think they can get away with paying low salaries because journalism is such an interesting field to work in. “It’s fun, but my landlord doesn’t accept fun as rent,” she says. Vice’s union contract awarded impressive raises—Vice set a $45,000 minimum for its writers, with some journalists getting immediate pay hikes of $8,000 or $10,000.

In August 2017, Mic, a news and opinion website, shocked its staff by laying off 25 workers without any warning. Shaken by the move, several staffers began discussing how a union might help, and in February, union supporters turned in cards showing that 88 percent of Mic’s editorial staff wanted to join the NewsGuild.

“A big thing that came out of the layoffs was we wanted to make sure we had more job security,” says Madeline Taterka, a Mic copy editor and an early union backer. “That if more layoffs came, we would have some voice in the process, and that we would feel secure day to day in our jobs, and not feel that we could lose them at any moment with no notice.” In their mission statement, union supporters said they wanted regularly scheduled raises, a 401(k) match, a commitment to diversity, and “a seat at the table.” Mic’s management agreed to recognize the union in March.

(left) Striking Chicago Newspaper Guildsmen parade through Chicago’s Loop in 1937; (right) New York Daily News strikers gather in 1990. Images courtesy NewsGuild.

Today, as in the 1930s, many journalists are so eager to unionize that they are all but organizing themselves. Yet, in the Newspaper Guild’s early years, many other workers employed by newspapers, such as typesetters, printers, and drivers, were already unionized. Those so-called “craft” workers often used their clout to help journalists unionize and obtain good contracts, although once the Guild grew, there were often tensions with the other newspaper unions.

At today’s digital (non-legacy) media companies, there are no typesetters, printers, or drivers, and that in ways gives journalists more power and leverage in operations. Peterson says the WGAE has considered striking against various digital companies, before finally reaching contract deals.

Ben Fractenberg, a reporter for DNAinfo who lost his job when his company was shut down, says that despite management’s threat to close, he enthusiastically supported unionization because of his newsroom’s lackluster health benefits and absence of raises. He argues that a lot of journalists’ concerns have remained the same decade after decade: job security, fair pay, and editorial standards. “I can’t imagine much of that has changed,” Fractenberg says. “It’s a new technology, but a lot of the concerns are the same. People still want a profession where they can support themselves and have a family.”

ICYMI: ‘This deepening division is not inevitable’: The failing diversity efforts of newsrooms

Steven Greenhouse was a New York Times reporter for 31 years, covering labor and workplaces from 1995 to 2014. He is the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker and is writing a book on the past, present, and future of labor unions and worker power in America.

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