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How Internet journalists *can* organize

By guest blogger Karen Wirsig

You’re in a job you should love with a friendly boss who sits a couple of desks over in your bright, open-concept office and buys everyone dinner once a week. Most of your friends who graduated at the same time as you are still working the retail job they had as students, stuck between a move to full-time hours and a break into their dream job.

You’ve got it made. Everyone says so.

So why are you already looking for a new job?

If you’re a journalist, it’s probably because the pay’s low and the hours are unbelievable. You see no future in it. You’re going to do what you can to boost your profile, then jump ship when a better opportunity presents itself.

Big fishThat’s why so few Internet reporters are represented by a union, according to a recent article in the Washington Post entitled “Why Internet journalists don’t organize.” None of the major commercial online news organizations in Canada – Huffington Post, iPolitics, Vice, Yahoo News – are unionized, though 36% of non-union journos in Canada would like to be represented by a union, according to a survey conducted by researchers at University of Western Ontario in 2013. In the US, only the Daily Beast has a union – The NewsGuild – which happened when it merged with the already-unionized Newsweek.

“The job market is a merry-go-round: Web publications are seen as springboards to something better, so writers are willing to put in long hours for low pay until they’re poached by some other place, which is the only way to get a raise, anyway.” The Post article takes a pretty dim view of young journalists’ aptitude for self-organizing.

But it’s worth remembering that young workers are leading the charge in both Canada and the US against unpaid internships. In Ontario, organizing has already prompted a crackdown on illegal unpaid internships and new legislation to include co-op students and interns as well as temporary foreign workers under health and safety law. The federal NDP has put forward a private member’s bill to put limits on internships at the federal level and the government is now consulting on changes of its own.

The problem with waiting for a better job to get the treatment you know you deserve is that it might never come. Unionized, decent-paying media jobs are on a steady decline on both sides of the border. It’s worth considering how to make the place you’re in a place you want to stay.

And it’s not very complicated. If a majority of employees in an organization decide they want to be represented by a union, you decide collectively which union you want to represent you and that union helps make the application to the labour board. If you’ve talked it over with a small group of colleagues you trust and need help figuring out how to proceed, a union organizer can help.

You are legally protected from being disciplined or fired for organizing a union in your workplace or signing a union card. Nonetheless, many organizing campaigns remain confidential until the application is in. And the boss never finds out who signed a union card. The labour board organizes a vote and every employee in the potential bargaining unit can participate in a secret ballot to confirm whether they want the union.

If you’re a freelancer who works for a variety of companies, you can improve your conditions with union help. Through a voluntary membership you can join the Guild’s freelance branch and get support and resources to negotiate decent contracts, make contacts in the industry and get professional development.

If you’re a student, volunteer or just transitioning into paid media work in Canada, you can become a CWA Canada Associate Member and get access to mentorships, networking and information about your rights as emerging media workers.

The main thing to remember is you’re not alone.

Karen Wirsig is an organizer at the Canadian Media Guild. Get in touch with her for information, advice, or just to talk about your situation: karen@cmg.ca or by phone at 416-591-5333, ext 222 / toll-free 1-800-465-4149.


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