In just over two years, hundreds of digital media employees have come together to unionize their workplaces and negotiate union contracts. Fundamentally, the demand of any group of workers forming a union is the same – to win a formal seat at the table in order to negotiate over the future of their workplace. Each group decides what to advocate for at the bargaining table as a union.
Though priorities vary from site to site, the issues tend to revolve around the same categories. Digital media employees want to address core economic concerns, including: preserving or improving benefits (leave time, 401k, health insurance), pay equity and transparency, regular and fair cost of living increases, and working conditions (such as hours). Creative professionals also negotiate to address workplace “culture” issues, including: transparency, communication, diversity, and editorial policies and independence.
Negotiating a union contract is a core element of any unionized workplace, however, it doesn’t stop there. Organized workplaces have structures for democratic representation and collective decision making processes. That means that unionized companies have a mechanism in place to share information across employees and to take collective action if and when necessary. This includes, for example, regular meetings with management and organizing workplace diversity committees.
Thrillist Organizing Committee member Anthony Schneck wrote in his own words why he and co-workers came together to organize a union.
The Writers Guild of America, East is a labor union of thousands of creative professionals who create digital media, television and motion pictures. For decades the Writers Guild has been essential in fighting for better standards in working conditions, compensation, and the respect of dignity of members. Our mission is to build a community of creative professionals with the willing to support each other and the power to secure fair industry standards.
Typical WGAE bargaining units in digital media include writers, reporters, and editors, as well as a range of people doing creative and editorial work, such as video producers and social media managers. Each group works together to decide and define the boundaries of editorial staff.
Leadership structures, ownership, and editorial direction of media and news companies change rapidly. Organizing is a way to ensure a seat at the table and guarantee terms of employment, including policies on severance, layoffs, discipline, and termination. Companies expand rapidly and, even if that doesn’t result in layoffs, workers deserve a seat at the table to participate in decisions made about the future of the companies they helped build. For example, HuffPosters negotiated unprecedented contract language that provides a process for revenue sharing of derivative works.
Additionally, union membership expands the role of editorial staff in the management and direction of a company. Union members in digital media participate in building the company through the creation of committees and increased communication and collaboration across regions and departments.
Organizing a union isn’t only about the future of one company. Industries with union density have fewer pay gaps and higher pay overall. Union members across the industry are working together to support each other and build a long-term movement to address and change systemic issues like diversifying the media industry and protecting critical journalism.
A workplace is “officially” union upon winning union recognition. Union recognition means that the company has a legal obligation to bargain a contract. Most digital media companies have respected their employees’ democratic right to organize and recognized the union after verifying that a majority of employees signed union authorization cards. In a few cases, digital media companies insisted on an election and attempted to dissuade people from continuing to organize in the lead up to the vote. For example, Thrillist won union recognition after an online election.
After winning union recognition, employees nominate a union committee that will bargain a first contract with the company. A union contract is only in effect after being bargained and voted into place.
A union card is also called a “showing of interest”. It’s essentially voting with your signature that you want to form a union with your co-workers. Union cards are available either as paper cards or electronic forms and ask for personal information (like name, job title, email address). The legal language is “I authorize the Writers Guild of America, East as my collective bargaining representative.” That means that you want to form a union with your co-workers and you want that union to be part of the Writers Guild of America, East.
Union cards are kept with WGAE staff – names and information of card signers are not shared with management.
It is your legal right to organize a union at work. The WGAE takes that right very seriously and will stand with employees to see that they are protected when they organize.
One of the most common anti-union talking points is the idea that the union is an outside entity that will impose restrictive rules or create more bureaucracy. The union is not a third party. It’s you and your colleagues coming together to establish common priorities and bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of your employment. The union can be used to establish things like employee site reps and labor management committees, which both increase, not limit, open lines of communication.
Media industry executives often try to scare their employees by arguing that a union will cause rigidity and bureaucracy and threaten innovation. As VICE, GMG, and HuffPost have already demonstrated – a union contract that creates fair working conditions does not hinder creative flexibility.
Often these messages are delivered by management via email as well as individual and group meetings. Most anti-union campaigns use the same script – one example is management’s unsuccessful anti-union campaign at Thrillist. Management is not allowed to interrogate, intimidate or threaten you over your union activity. If you feel your rights have been infringed upon, contact the WGAE.
The Writers Guild represents many people in production. Just recently at Vox Media, video APs, producers, editors, directors, and shooters as well as motion graphics designers, production/audio technicians, coordinators, managers, and directors unionized with the Writers Guild. Prior to that, around 250 production employees at Vice Media including producers, APs, researchers, coordinators, and archivist for the departments Viceland, Vice Digital Video and Vice on HBO unionized as well.
The Guild also represents sound, color, animation, and motion artists, PAs, producers, and directors at a number of other unionized digital media sites. The reason that video teams at Onion Inc., The Dodo, Vox Media, HuffPost, Gizmodo Media Group, and Thrillist joined with writers to organize their union is because they share many issues with their colleagues: pay, benefits, intellectual property and licensing, job security, and so on.
As digital media companies continue to expand and put more resources into video, the people who write the scripts, produce the videos, and shoot and edit the content deserve the industry standards that their counterparts in traditional TV and film enjoy. Creative, quality content doesn’t need to come at the expense of stable and equitable working conditions.
In addition to the digital media industry, the Writers Guild organized production in the reality TV/nonfiction industry.
Ultimately, the employees set the priorities for what gets bargained into a contract and the Writers Guild is well-equipped to represent an array of digital media professionals.
Through continued conversations and a bargaining survey, you determine the bargaining priorities and what does or doesn’t work for your individual workplace, then work with the WGAE staff to develop proposals that specifically address those issues. Those proposals are voted into place by you – the employees.
Gizmodo Media Group, Huff Post, VICE, and ThinkProgress are flexible, fast-paced, and innovative workplaces in the media industry that all have strong union contracts in place.
A key part of contract negotiations is conducting a thorough financial analysis of the institution. The company is compelled to disclose certain information. Through a detailed cost-out of each proposal and this analysis, we want to propose realistic improvements that will work for employees and the company.
Companies often think that they are running their operations as efficiently as possible. Editorial staff are on the front line and may be able to identify inefficient practices that, if changed, could save money. A union is also a way to advocate for long-term staff investment, which can improve morale and reduce turnover.
Once the union and management bargaining committee reach a tentative agreement on the contract, it is voted into place by the membership. Once the contract is in effect, members nominate a representative union committee. The union committee works with Guild staff to enforce the contract and communicate with management about additional issues in the workplace.
The strongest unions are those that have actively engaged members at every stage of the process. There may be workplace issues that arise after contract negotiations that require people to talk with each other to identify the problem and develop solutions. For example, many unionized sites have active initiatives around diversity and have developed proposals to implement unconscious bias trainings and best practices in hiring, recruitment, and retention. Guild staff can facilitate this process but you’re the experts in your field and workplace.
Union contracts address a broad range of issues, from pay and benefits to editorial standards and diversity. While contracts can set minimums for pay, they don’t set maximums – and individuals still retain the right to negotiate above and beyond the minimum rates.
In a creative workplace, particularly newsrooms, it’s not always clear who is/isn’t a supervisor. The first test for us is if someone wants to be in the union, and their colleagues support it.
The final bargaining unit is subject to negotiation – what is initially proposed may change depending on what we learn about the scope of each person’s work duties. The definition of the bargaining unit can also be contested by the employer, in which case we have organizing and political options.
Dues ensure that Guild members have the resources to negotiate and enforce strong contracts, seek legal support, and implement member-driven events and programs.
No one pays dues until a first contract is negotiated and voted upon. It’s up to you and your colleagues to work together to advocate for a strong contract and then decide, through voting, whether or not to ratify the contract.
WGAE dues are set by the Council (a governing body made up of elected members). Dues are 1.5% of earnings + $40/quarter membership fee. Upon leaving a union shop, individuals can decide to continue paying the $40/quarter fee to retain Guild membership. The $500 initiation fee is a one-time fee that is waived for anyone on staff before a union contract is in place; it can be paid in installments by anyone hired after contract ratification.
Guild staff work with the elected Council and interested members to implement a range of initiatives. In just the last year, Guild members have applied for grants to start a writing fellowship programs, hosted film screenings, social events, and professional development courses, and collaborated on initiatives like the Diversity Coalition and lobbying for diversity tax credits in film and television production.
Members also participate in the annual WGAE Awards Ceremony, receive free film screeners, and have the opportunity to join a national community of creative professionals in media and entertainment.
Bargaining a contract is about identifying core issues that need to be clarified, which requires compromise and collaboration. The process isn’t perfect or magic. There can be conflict at various stages of the process, whether it is co-workers who disagree with each other or managers who push back on proposals or union involvement. Contract negotiations are just that – a negotiation. The process to get to the negotiating table requires work and involvement from a lot of people.
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