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Momentum building to unionize digital newsrooms

By Karen Wirsig

Last week, BuzzFeed’s CEO told employees that a union wouldn’t be good for them. We know this because Jonah Peretti’s comments, made at a staff meeting, were reported in Buzzfeed and then in the Guardian.

Six months ago, this wouldn’t have been news. It’s not particularly surprising to hear of an employer telling their employees to avoid unions. And just last winter, the Washington Post published a piece about why digital newsrooms (such as BuzzFeed) don’t organize, based on what appeared to be a lacklustre drive at Politico.

Guardian US newsroomSoon after, however, Gawker employees took the media world by surprise and launched a public union drive that led to a June 4 vote in favour of joining the Writers Guild of America East. They were followed this summer by US workers at Salon, Vice and the Guardian. The latter joined the News Guild, which is affiliated with the same international union as the Canadian Media Guild.

Journalists and organizers are now planning a workshop for non-union digital journalists in October in Kentucky to share strategies for creating better workplaces.

Peretti may have been feeling the heat. Whatever the case, the suggestion that his employees would be better off without a union collides with evidence that digital media workers want a more democratic workplace.

As Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan pointed out during the very public union drive there, relying on the benevolence of the employer is no way to guarantee fairness in the workplace.

“We would like to ensure everyone receives a salary that is fair for their time at the company and the work they do,” Nolan wrote in April in a piece for Gawker about why he and his colleagues were organizing. “We would like to ensure that things like pay and raises are set in a fair, transparent, and unbiased way. We would like to have some basic mechanism for giving employees a voice in the decisions that affect all of us here.”

Peretti might be a nice guy and he may actually think he represents the best interests of his employees at BuzzFeed, but that’s never the number one job for a CEO. Without a collective voice, workers are at the mercy of their individual relationships with management and of the changing priorities of the organization, priorities that are typically set while they’re not in the room.

Workers in Canadian digital media workplaces are facing the same pressures as their union colleagues and a 2013 Canadian survey suggests more than one-third of journalists who are not in a union would like to join one. If you’re thinking about what it would take to organize your workplace, and what kind of help you could get, the information you need is right here.

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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