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Why the Thrillist strike is so important for digital media unions

It's another sign that journalists and other digital media staff are willing to go on strike if necessary.

An empty office. CREDIT: Getty Images
An empty office. CREDIT: Getty Images

Workers at Thrillist, a website that covers travel, culture, and food, went on the first known work stoppage at a digital media publication this week. Thrillist’s unionized staff voted to authorize a strike “should we not make sufficient progress at the table.”

On Monday, workers overwhelmingly voted in favor of going on strike, at 91 percent of union members, and they did not report to work. Workers were back on the job on Tuesday but are ready for another work stoppage if necessary.

On Monday, Thrillist workers said their Slack accounts and emails had been deactivated and one worker said their card to get into the building would not work. An hour and a half later, staff had their Slack and email reactivated, according to Splinter.

Thrillist workers voted to unionize last year and are still trying to negotiate a contract with the publication’s parent company, Group Nine Media.

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Thrillist staffers said in statement that “livable salary minimums and fair annual increases” are at issue and that Group Nine Media has only put “scant, inadequate economic terms” on the table in response.

In February of last year, workers said that reasons for unionizing included increasing diversity of staff, having “common-sense standards for judging performance,” and more transparency about job responsibilities. Writers Guild of America, East is its collective bargaining representative. The publication had over 80 percent of its writers, editors, and social media staff sign cards choosing Writers Guild of America, East.

But Group Nine Media has resisted unionization efforts, with its founder and CEO Ben Lerer saying he is concerned about “the effect the union would have on our unique culture,” according to Deadspin and made some statements about union contracts that were just plain false. Lerer described unions as necessary for some industries and businesses but suggested that it did not make sense for workers at Thrillist or in journalism, with the “new types of personal career growth that we traditionally have.”

Talking about a “unique” culture and how a particular industry may not benefit from unionization is par for the course for anti-union rhetoric, including in journalism.

Last year, Slate Group Chairman Jacob Weisberg wrote that Slate’s “flexibility and fluidity” would be hampered by unionization, according to Splinter. He added that a union is “filled with bureaucracy and procedure,” and “That world is just not Slate-y….A union fosters a culture of opposition, which is antithetical to our way of doing things.”

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Vox Media’s publisher, Melissa Bell, wrote a letter last year in response to unionization at Vox Media. Bell wrote, “… we are still in a precarious industry, and we want to ensure that our business remains strong and competitive by maintaining the flexibility necessary to adapt and innovate. Doing so is imperative to our ability to provide jobs and career paths to employees.”

Last year, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti responded to a question about unions in a companywide meeting. He said he is not against unions personally but does not believe that unionization is right for BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed News media and politics reporter Steven Perlberg tweeted at the time.

But many journalists and other media professionals have decided to unionize precisely because they work in a precarious industry. Journalists are concerned about low pay and long hours and mass layoffs.

Nastaran Mohit, organizing director of the NewsGuild of New York, told Columbia Journalism Review, “Looking at previously non-union digital publications, I think younger journalists recognize the instability and precarity of the industry, and they see the value of coming together to secure a seat at the table.”

Group Nine Media hired Proskauer Rose LLP, a law firm with 13 offices that represents major sports organizations and had 14 of its lawyers named in a 2018 guide on the top 100 “leading corporate, defense-side employment lawyers.”

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A number of digital media outlets began unionization efforts in the past few years, including ThinkProgress, The Intercept, Vice Media, HuffPost, MTV News, The New Yorker, Salon, Los Angeles Times, Jacobin, Fast Company, Mic, The New Yorker, and Gawker, which is now defunct.

Fast Company’s union announced plans to unionize in June and was recognized at the end of July. The New Yorker staff had a similar timeline. It announced plans to unionize in June and and received recognition in July. CNN reported that in their letter to management, New Yorker staff said, “Salaries often vary significantly among people who hold the same position, and we have seen a steady stream of our colleagues leave for jobs that provide more tenable wages. Some of us have worked for years as subcontracted employees, without health insurance and other basic benefits, though we do the same jobs as the staff members who sit beside us.”

In June, Slate staffers said management insisted on an open shop so that union members can decide not to pay union dues and that 94 percent of the unit had signed onto a letter opposing an open shop. Unlike in the cases of The New Yorker and Fast Company, Slate took a lot longer to recognize the union: 10 months.

Thrillist workers said they decided on a work stoppage and called a meeting to authorize a strike now because, after a series of negotiations in July, Group Nine Media appeared to be dragging its feet in negotiations and workers were losing patience. There is a bargaining meeting set for September.

https://twitter.com/thrillistunion/status/1029459448035766273