News Guild starts $500,000 campaign to organize digital newsrooms
The News Guild — known until recently as the Newspaper Guild — has traditionally been the union for American journalists who produce written work. Lately, though, in the digital-media business, it has been overshadowed by the Writers Guild of America-East union, which has organized the editorial staffs at digital-only news outlets Gawker Media, Salon and Vice Media.
It's something the News Guild wants to change.
“I think we’ve been there slugging away and we haven’t perhaps got as much attention, but we’re going to change that," News Guild president Bernie Lunzer told POLITICO in a recent interview. "We’re going to make sure people understand who we are and what we have to offer.”
The News Guild is no stranger to the employment issues that arise in digital newsrooms, though most of the 26,000 people it represents work at legacy print papers.
“Some of this is semantics, about whether something is digital if it’s attached to say a legacy print operation,” he said. “But we also have digital-only organizations so we were a little taken aback when Gawker was referred to as the first digital-only organizing attempt.”
News Guild points to the small, lefty websites Truthout and In These Times, as well as The Daily Beast — which joined the union thanks to its merger with already-unionized print magazine Newsweek — and now Guardian US, which voted to join The News Guild a month ago. Combine that with the digital-side workers at legacy outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, Lunzer said, and The News Guild currently represents about 2,000 digital journalists.
Now, the union is preparing to go on the offensive. It recently secured a $500,000 “strategic industry fund request” (essentially an internal grant) from its parent union Communications Workers of America to be spent on a campaign to organize digital newsrooms.
The union currently has three organizers in New York and one in Washington who are specifically focused on organizing digital newsrooms. It is in the process of hiring another two organizers — one in New York and one in Washington — in the coming weeks. By the end of the year, Lunzer said, the union hopes to have eight or nine organizers across the country specifically focused on organizing digital journalists.
Though the WGA-East is a much smaller union — representing just 4,000 screenwriters, TV show writers and TV news employees — it has a half-dozen organizers in New York focused on digital media organizing. Lowell Peterson, the executive director of WGA-East, told POLITICO that organizing is the union’s largest department.
Both The News Guild and WGA-East are currently in the midst of organizing multiple digital media companies.
Lunzer said that The News Guild is currently in the midst of eight separate union drives, six of which have not yet been made public. In general, he said, the union likes to keep its organizing drives secret until employees are ready to talk to management.
“It was a little bit different at POLITICO, in that there was a person there that pronounced a drive, but that wasn’t us doing that,” he said. “That was [Mike] Elk on his own.”
The News Guild has also been pursuing a much quieter drive at The Huffington Post.
“We’ve been talking with Huffington Post members, on and off, for five years,” Lunzer said.
As for WGA-East, Peterson would only say that “several drives appear to be hot.” Employees at many more digital companies have reached out to WGA-East, he added, though he cautioned that “just getting a phone call from someone is not an organizing drive.”
With two different unions aggressively organizing the same industry, there’s bound to be some competition. Lunzer said that employees at both Salon and Vice had been in contact with The News Guild before ultimately joining WGA-East.
“Salon was a little bit interesting because we actually thought, we were contacted prior to the Writers Guild,” Lunzer said.
This is news to Peterson, who told POLITICO that the two unions have never encountered one another during an organizing drive.
“If we actually do encounter each other, which we haven’t yet, then we know how to talk to them,” he said, referring to The News Guild. “We haven’t encountered that situation yet.”
The tension between The News Guild and WGA-East is something of an open secret within the labor movement, though both Lunzer and Peterson — old friends who worked together back when Peterson was a labor lawyer and one of his clients was The News Guild — downplay any talk of a rivalry.
“We’re not trying to create a rivalry,” Lunzer said. “Is there some competition? Sure, in terms of the organizations, I guess. … I don’t think it should be about hype or a popularity contest. People just have to get the facts and make their own choices.”
“I don’t think of it as a ‘pick us’ or ‘pick them’ situation,” Peterson said. “We’re not even rivals, not just friendly rivals but not even rivals. We’re sister unions.”
Still, there’s a sense inside The News Guild that the smaller union is encroaching on their traditional turf.
“Historically, Writers Guild was more about people who wrote for TV shows. They’re closer to, I guess, like a screenwriters kind of operation. They have a much different dues system than we do,” Lunzer said. “So historically, I think they’re been quite different. Clearly, they have decided to move into an area that we have historically believed to be ours, but at this point, people have to choose on their own.”
Peterson objects to the idea that WGA-East is moving in on News Guild territory. He believes that digital media companies like Gawker and Vice are part of a different industry from the legacy newspapers that The News Guild has traditionally organized.
“Digital-native news organizations are separate from legacy news outlets … We wouldn’t organize newspapers [but] I don’t think that Gawker is like The Washington Post in any meaningful way,” he said.
Peterson said that the WGA-East has long represented journalists at television networks and news writers make up a third of the union’s current membership. More recently, he said, the union has focused on digital media. That focus started after the 2007 Writers Guild Strike, when screenwriters and TV writers were given a cut of studios' digital revenues for the first time.
Both WGA-East and The News Guild arguably have jurisdiction over digital media companies. The WGA-East constitution states that the union represents: “Any person engaged by a Signatory to the applicable Guild Minimum Basic Agreement to write literary or journalistic material.” The News Guild constitution defines the union’s jurisdiction as: “The advertising, business, circulation, editorial, maintenance, promotion and related departments of (1) news or news feature publications … and any other media enterprises in the United States.”
In theory, the AFL-CIO — which counts both unions as members — is supposed to prevent this kind of thing. Article III, Section 8 of the federation’s constitution states: “Affiliates of the Federation shall be encouraged to eliminate conflicts and duplications in organization and jurisdictions through the process of voluntary agreement or voluntary merger in consultation with the appropriate officials of the Federation.”
So, will The News Guild and WGA-East merge?
Lunzer is willing to consider it.
“I don’t know whether Writers Guild would ever consider it, but as far as I’m concerned, I’d love for Writers Guild to someday consider merging with The News Guild,” he said.
Peterson said that any possibility of a merger would be “a long way down the road.”
It’s also possible that even more media unions could decide that they have jurisdiction in the industry and start organizing digital media companies.
“There are, I guess, arguably, two or three other unions that may feel they’ve got this ability,” Lunzer said. “There may be some that have never done it and feel that now it’s something to get into because somehow it’s easy pickings. I don’t think that’s true at all, but I can see some other perhaps media unions trying to get into this.”
For the foreseeable future, at least, both WGA-East and The News Guild will continue to try to organize digital newsrooms. The question for not-yet-unionized digital media workers then becomes: which union is better suited to their needs?
Lunzer believes that journalists who do their homework will pick The News Guild, owing to its decades of experience organizing newspaper journalists.
“Especially in the world of journalism, if you were to disregard what’s been really the predominant union for journalists for over 70 years in the United States, I think that would be really kind of foolish,” he said.
Both unions say that they are democratic, bottom-up unions that take their direction from the workers that they represent. But experience can still make a difference, Lunzer said.
“We will go to a particular organization and talk to them and the potential members might have a concern about maternity leave or other issues. We really look to the group to decide what’s important to them,” he said. “Now we’ll give them advice — we certainly have a lot of experience working with other groups and we share that information that we’ve got, we’ve got roughly 300 contracts, so we share that information — and then they can decide what it is that they’re concerned about.”
For instance, most News Guild contracts include “just cause” language — which protects workers from being fired without a good reason — and overtime protections. WGA-East contracts generally do not include these provisions, owing to the unusual schedule and work environment that TV writers face.
But that doesn’t mean that WGA-East is unfamiliar with such provisions.
“We certainly have ample experience with ‘just cause’ and overtime protections ... None of this stuff is a foreign language to us,” Peterson said.
Peterson is also skeptical that The News Guild's library of contracts with legacy outlets will prove applicable to workers at companies like Gawker and Vice.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for a union in any new sector to say, you’re just like our old sector,” he said.
The WGA-East may have an advantage when it comes to companies like Vice, which have large nonfiction video production arms in addition to news sites. The WGA-East is currently in the midst of a campaign to organize nonfiction and reality TV production companies. At Vice, the WGA-East union does not extend to video production workers; only writers and editors at Vice.com, sister sites like Noisey and Motherboard, and the Vice print magazine are included in the union. But that could change in the future.
“We are an actively organizing union. As you know, one of our other big campaigns is in nonfiction TV, so we are actively organizing reality/nonfiction/docudrama TV production companies. … That’s not all that dissimilar from what Vice TV does,” Peterson said.
“I wouldn’t ever rule out any of the nonfiction entities in New York because we’re out there a lot. But I’m not announcing anything,” he added.
Lunzer said that he understands that some workers will feel that they are a better fit for WGA-East than for The News Guild. His real concern is that workers will get caught up in the "hype" and choose WGA-East without even considering The News Guild.
“It isn’t just some kind of thing about we’re trying to compete with each other and all that,” he said. “It’s just that people need to have these conversations and journalists, for sure, should get all of the information they can and then make their decisions. If some people still choose to go to Writers Guild, you know, fine. That’s something we’ll accept.”
Workers who feel pressured to join a specific union may end up feeling that the union does not represent them and decide to vote against unionizing. That's what happened when the United Auto Workers tried (and failed) to organize a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee last year. Similar concerns led a minority of Gawker writers to vote against joining the WGA-East in June.
“Nothing about the road to organization has been organized in the least, so I’m not confident in the WGA’s abilities to help us unionize. I have constantly felt like I’m being sold something by a group that wants to be associated with Gawker Media, the [first] digital media company to unionize. That’s a big deal! And a lot of nice, positive PR,” Deadspin staff writer Leslie Horn wrote in a Gawker comment. “Our editorial staff has been rushed to vote next week on whether or not to unionize, when members of the editorial staff are just now being brought up to speed on what is going on.”
Another Deadspin staff writer, Kevin Draper, wrote that he did not feel that Gawker Media employees had been able to choose which union to join.
“An open forum would have occurred prior to selecting the WGA as the union we would try and unionize with. Not that I want the Newspaper Guild or whatever the hell they’re calling themselves these days, but the mere introduction of the WGA before most of us had a chance to consider any of these issues has messed things up,” he wrote in a comment.
With the ample resources of the 700,000-strong CWA union behind it, The News Guild has a good shot at reasserting itself as the dominant union for workers producing written journalism. The WGA-East’s successful drives at Gawker and Vice may have temporarily given it the mantle of "digital media union," but its advantage could disappear once The News Guild begins hiring more organizers and spending more on outreach.
Lunzer certainly believes that.
“I would tell you that, five years hence, it will look very different. … At the end of the day, I think people, smart journalists, will do due diligence, talk [about] what’s available,” he said. “And I think we’ll do just fine.”