New York’s media scene is suddenly unionizing. What happened?

"We demand better snacks!"

A More Perfect Union

A strange wave of 19th century nostalgia seems to have swept New York, and we’re not just talking about hipsters using mustache wax. Union fever has struck – in the last two months, at least four major new media outlets have formed collective bargaining units. So what the hell is going on?

The Votes

In June, Gawker writers voted 80-20 to join the Writers Guild of America, East, and launched a wave of similar moves in newsrooms around New York. In early July, Salon’s New York edit team voted 26-0 to unionize. On July 29, The Guardian’s U.S. staffers did the same, voting 45-0 to join The News Media Guild’s union, and Vice Media editorial unionized on Monday.

The decisions to form collective bargaining unit haven’t been met with 19th-century style union busting. Vice cofounder Shane Smith, for example, wrote, ” I am proud to support all of you – and as an old grey-haired man all I want is for my beautiful VICE family to be happy – those writers who voted to unionize and those who did not. I love you all, and together we will conquer the world.”

So What Happened?

Unusually, it seems that Gawker’s move wasn’t prompted by any specific grievance or complaint. In a June 4 post announcing their decision to form a union, Gawker staff wrote (with no apparent irony), “The next steps: determining what we want to bargain for…” Nor did The Guardian’s statement actually mention why they unionized.

But one only has to look at the bleak prospects for journalism – as well as the lack of labor guarantees in the tech world – to understand why these staffers felt the need for protection.

But Why the WGA?

Although the Writers Guild of America, East does represent some television journalists, and there are always exceptions, for the most part, the WGA serves writers for film and television. And the inclusion of an entirely new type of writer might not serve anyone very well.

“…In the times where I’ve had conversations with Writers Guild members who are working in TV journalism,” screenwriter John August said, “it is just such a different world that I worry sometimes that we’re not able to adequately represent their special needs and concerns… I worry that in trying to get more people involved with the guild, you’re going to lose that kind of focus.”

The Guardian’s decision to unionize under the News Media Guild makes more sense – the organization represents workers at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more.

So What Now?

While the decisions to unionize have not been met with much pushback from management (although there are reports that Upworthy’s top brass have not been very receptive to the idea), the real test will come when these unions begin negotiating contracts. And just how the likes of Shane Smith and Nick Denton will respond when their staffs threaten to go on strike is anyone’s guess.

Now go forth (and look for the union label).