Wednesday night, Gawker Media voted to unionize. The stats: 107 of 118 eligible voters cast secret ballots, 80 of whom voted yes. Just like that, Gawker will become the first digital-only news site to have a union.
Hamilton Nolan, longtime Gawker writer, announced the editorial staff’s decision to organize in a post this April. At the time, he listed the motivations: that a union “is the only real mechanism that exists to represent the interest of employees in a company,” the continued pursuit of fair and transparent salaries, and the ability to make a little history as the first major site of its kind to organize.
According to Gawker senior writer Sam Biddle, who answered questions via email, “The origin of the union isn’t any particular grievance or crisis — we all love our jobs and our workplace, and thought a union would be a great way to protect that, and make it even better for ourselves and our colleagues.” In his five years at Gawker, he doesn’t recall unionizing being “seriously discussed.”
“I think it happened now because the [Writers Guild of America, East] was so enthusiastic about making this happen for us,” he said. “It didn’t take very much convincing, to be honest.”
Lowell Peterson, executive director of the WGA East couldn’t recall if Gawker reached out to WGA or the other way around. “Our organizers have been talking with them for months,” he said by phone. “The writers at Gawker have self-organized as much as we’ve organized them. It’s been inspiring to see how enthusiastic they are about having a collective voice… When they expressed their readiness to move forward, they were really ready.”
The WGA has also been organizing in other non-fiction arenas, like reality TV, and “I know Gawker writers have read” about that progress, Peterson said. “And I think there’s a broader political conversation happening about inequality and the need for some sort of strong response to that.”
Even if Gawker had been game for unionizing a decade ago, the WGA might not have been prepared, at the time, to take them on. “I think things were pretty different ten years ago for everybody. Nobody really knew what the business models would look like,” said Peterson, citing the whole range of work being done: blogs run by self-employed individuals, pure-aggregation sites, scrappy start-ups.
“On the union side, we looked at those developments and weren’t really sure how to engage,” said Peterson. “We spent more of our organizing time looking at people who were already monetizing, or at least creating projects on their own. Because the aggregation sites, we didn’t know how that model was really going to be sustainable. I think what Gawker has demonstrated is that there is a way for all digital entities to be sustainable, to be compelling enough to get a lot of readers and viewers, to create news and related content that’s original.”
The Gawker writers are not coming to us because they’re getting paid ten cents a word.
Both parties insist the desire to form a union arose from a desire for the perks of organization, not as a reaction to poor working conditions. “The Gawker writers are not coming to us because they’re getting paid ten cents a word,” said Peterson. “It’s not an immediate response to an immediate ill. It’s a deeper response.”
Still, “There’s inequities writers want us to address,” Peterson said, desires he’s gleaned from meetings with “dozens” of Gawker writers. “They want a voice. They have certain things that they want us to say: locking in minimum compensation levels, creating structures that make sure they can do the work they currently do, but most importantly, they want the strength of a united voice in the face of downward pressure. That’s what they want: a voice on the job, a collective voice, and they recognize the voice can be heard when it’s all of them speaking.”
For the WGA, adding Gawker Media to their fleet is a sign that the union is relevant to the newest of news organizations, a signal to anyone who might suggest that this type of organizing is obsolete in a modern journalism economy. “In a lot of ways, the Gawker writers are at the intersection of the old and the new news business,” Peterson said. Not to mention the high profile: “Everybody reads Gawker.”
What happens now? Next on the docket: decide what, specifically, to bargain for and negotiate a contract.
Peterson thinks that Gawker’s success — with what appears to be relative ease — will inspire other digital-only publications. “One of the barriers to any set of employees organizing is a sense of futility,” Peterson said. With Gawker’s achievement, “the sense of futility elsewhere goes away. People will say, ‘This is possible. They banded together, they built something strong, maybe we can do this.’ I would hope that’s the message that goes out across the digital space: Yes, we can actually accomplish this. It’s not just an ideal or a pipe dream. It’s something concretely available.”
“I’ve heard some grumbling about whether this is just a “PR victory” — but this might be a rare instance when a PR victory is great,” said Biddle. “I hate PR! But if this vote can persuade people like us at other companies to organize, I think that would be terrific. We did this for ourselves, not other websites, but it would be really tremendous if other websites follow suit — a lot of us have close friends at rival publications and want the best for them.
“I absolutely think it will at least spark an interest at other digital-only publications, and I hope it becomes a lot more than a spark.”