Gawker writers plan to vote on unionizing next week
Three weeks ago, Gawker C.E.O. Nick Denton, president Heather Dietrick, and executive editor Tommy Craggs met for lunch with two organizers from the Writers Guild of America-East and Hamilton Nolan, the Gawker.com senior writer who is spearheading a union drive at Gawker Media.
That lunch meeting was held at Freeman’s restaurant, just a few blocks away from Gawker’s Nolita headquarters, and both Denton and Nolan described it as cordial and friendly. During the meeting, Denton talked about the importance of openness and diversity of opinion to Gawker Media and said that he would not oppose his employees' attempts to form a union.
Denton is committed to neutrality, and that's made the Gawker Media's union drive less contentious than most. So far, it’s been characterized by internal debates among eligible employees, with none of the propaganda and pressure from management that typically accompany organizing attempts.
“I haven’t got any negative, scary vibes just yet from them. … They’re not going to oppose it in any way. They’re not going to do anti-union propaganda or any of that stuff,” Nolan said.
Nolan would know. He’s written extensively about how large companies like Target have reacted to union drives.
“I didn’t really know how Nick was going to react necessarily when we first got into it. I’ve been—what’s the expression?—pleasantly surprised to see how enlightened Nick is as a leader,” Nolan said.
Denton may not personally be a fan of unions, but he is clearly no union-buster.
“I've been supportive of free journalists, and their right to free association,” he told Capital in an instant message.
He’s also shown himself fiercely protective of his journalists’ rights to free speech—whether they are speaking out about Hulk Hogan’s sex tape (a post that has embroiled the company in a $100 million lawsuit) or their own workplace conditions.
“There is one value that unites all the different communities that gather under the flag of Deadspin, or Kotaku, or Gawker,” he said. “A commitment to explore the whole story, with all its nuances and differences of interpretation…it would be sheer hypocrisy for us to preach radical transparency to the world, without applying it to ourselves, and our own differences.”
But all this also means the union drive, in addition to being unusually non-confrontational, has been unusually public—and a rare window into the internal decision-making process facing digital media companies as unions begin to figure out how to make the kinds of inroads there they have traditionally had at traditional media organizations.
Nolan announced the plan to organize a union at Gawker Media in a public post on Gawker, and Nolan and other staffers are planning to have a public discussion on Gawker.com about the union shortly before employees are due to vote on whether to join the W.G.A.
The date for the vote has not been finalized yet, but the current plan is to hold an online vote on June 3. The vote will be open to all full-time Gawker editorial employees, including remote employees not based in Gawker's New York headquarters. If more than half of the eligible employees vote in favor of joining the union, then Gawker will become a union shop and all eligible editorial employees—even those who voted against joining the union—will be represented by the union (and have to pay union dues).
“The election will likely be on June 3rd and will take place entirely online. This will be the case regardless of whether or you based in New York or work remotely,” W.G.A. organizer Justin Molito wrote in an email to Gawker employees on Friday, updating them on the process.
Molito also addressed the question of which employees will be eligible to join the union, which is still being negotiated between the company and employees.
“Who is eligible? Editorial employees of Gawker Media. This would include site leads, executive-level editors and the staff working beneath them,” he wrote. “Contract employees are not eligible to vote. If you received this email, we believe you are eligible to vote.”
In Gawker jargon, the term “site leads” refers to editors of Gawker Media’s individual sites and include people like Gawker.com editor Max Read, Jezebel editor Emma Carmichael, and Deadspin editor Tim Marchman. “Executive-level editors” are members of Gawker Media’s editorial management committee, also known as the “Politburo,” and include people like executive managing editor Lacey Donohue and investigations editor John Cook.
Executive editor Craggs, who is both the head of the Politburo and part of Gawker’s seven-person managing board, would likely be ineligible to join the union.
In preparation for the vote, Gawker employees have been discussing the benefits and drawbacks of joining the union in public staff meetings and on sometimes contentious private Slack threads. Nolan has been reaching out to full-time editorial employees outside of New York to answer their questions and concerns about the union.
“I think the main organizing issue that we have is just a communication issue, because we have so many remote employees. … A lot of people who had questions about the union and have had doubts about it—once they get the chance to sit down and talk to somebody about it and ask all their questions and get all their answers answered, they tend to come around, at least based on the conversations I’ve had,” Nolan said.
It’s increasingly expected that Gawker employees will vote to form the union, if only because there seems to be little reason not to.
“Honestly, what people are asking for is modest enough I think and the support from management has been positive enough and encouraging enough and strong enough so far that I don’t have a lot of fears about how contentious this is going to be and that some people are going to really lose out on important things,” Nolan said.
Among the biggest concerns of Gawker employees is whether joining the union would require Gawker to adopt a contract that includes all of the restrictions stereotypically associated with unions—such as prohibitions on working with non-union employees and requirements that compensation and job security always be tied to time spent at the company rather than job performance or other factors.
“All the demands or whatever we’re trying to ask for all comes from us,” is how Nolan characterized his and the W.G.A.’s response to those concerns. “There’s nothing being imposed on us that we have to bargain for that we don’t want to. If we want to leave alone the way that we operate that everybody likes, we can leave it alone. The stuff we like, we don’t have to mess with.”
W.G.A. organizer Molito made a similar point in his Friday email to Gawker employees:
“Will I have to go through the WGAE staff every time I want to talk with my employer? No. If that were true Saturday Night Live or the evening news would never air on time! Union members still work directly with their managers. The union does not deal with your employer unless you specifically request it.
“Will I still be able to negotiate my own deals? Yes, and you should! A union contract sets minimum salaries. You can and should always try to negotiate for more. The difference is that, with a contract, you’ll know what the minimum is, and have something to base your own rate on given your skill level and experience.
“If I am a member of the union will union rules dictate where I can work? No. You can work wherever you want. The union will not force you to only take union jobs. And most WGA members work non-union gigs.”
Even the W.G.A. union dues don’t seem that prohibitive. According to Molito’s email, dues are just 1.5 percent of one’s salary, plus a $40 membership maintenance fee and an initiation fee (about $750) that is often waived.
Some Gawker employees are concerned that joining a union would mean the end of their monthly bonus system.
Here’s how the current bonus system works, according to a Gawker source: each month, every site lead submits a list of their 20 highest-quality posts to the Politburo, which evaluates the editorial quality of the posts and awards bonuses to those sites that have exceeded expectations. The size of each site’s possible bonus is proportional to the site’s size; the largest possible monthly bonus for Gawker.com, for example, is about $6,800. Each site lead then distributes their site’s bonus to their staff as they see fit.
Could such an arbitrary and subjective system exist in a union environment where compensation is negotiated in a collective bargaining contract? Nolan says yes.
“I don’t think there’s anything inherent in having a union that would make them change our current bonus structure, because it all comes down to what we want to negotiate for in the contract,” he said.
If Gawker writers do vote to unionize, Gawker Media will become the first major digital media company to unionize. Nolan and Craggs hope that this will set an example for the rest of the industry, putting pressure on companies like Buzzfeed and Vice.
“I think one thing that Nick is probably conscious of is, you know, if we can be the first big company in this industry, new media-ish kind of thing, to do it that it’s good for Nick,” Nolan said. “It’s good for Nick’s legacy. It’s good for Nick as a leader. It’s something good that Nick could do, I think, for the whole industry.”
Denton had a slightly different take.
“I prize our writers' ability to conduct this discussion in the open, without fear of corporate retribution or social pressure,” Denton told Capital. “If you ask about firsts, that's the one I'm proud of.”
Update, 2:40 p.m.: The Politburo and W.G.A. have released a joint statement announcing the vote:
Gawker Media and the Writers Guild of America, East are happy to announce a first-of-its-kind election whereby the members of Gawker Media’s editorial staff will determine whether they wish to form a union. The traditional process of union authorization runs through the National Labor Relations Board. But by mutual agreement we are bypassing this route in favor of holding our own secret-ballot vote, to be held on Wednesday, June 3, because we believe the cumbersome and often fractious process of unionization is premised on an assumption of complete antagonism between management and labor.
Nothing of the kind exists at Gawker Media. We are united in our belief that writers should decide for themselves whether to organize to protect their own rights through collective bargaining, and we hope the labor drive at Gawker Media, culminating in the June 3 election, can serve as a new model for cooperation in digital media.