By Shaye DiPasquale
2019 is shaping up to be The Year of the Media Union. Amid folding publications, high-profile mergers, and mass company layoffs (there were 7,700 media jobs lost), journalists are taking matters into their own hands. At Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Vox Media, and just recently, NBC News, staffers triumphed in their organizing efforts to unionize and ratify collective bargaining agreements. At Deadspin, the entire editorial team banned together and quit en masse after a bitter struggle with management over the site’s editorial independence.
And most recently in perhaps the biggest coup of coups, employees at Hearst Magazines, one of America’s oldest magazine publishers, joined the ranks of organized labor. The Hearst Magazines Media Union is now one of the largest editorial units in the media industry, with over 60 percent of Hearst employees already signed on and counting, according to the union’s organizing committee.
Is your head spinning yet? Don’t worry. It’s a lot to take in, especially in an industry that has already undergone so much disruption in the last several years. Of course, that’s also why folks are unionizing: to protect their jobs, their salaries, and ensure they are treated equally. Should you join a union, too? Cheer your peers on from the sidelines? Sit in your throne and throw scraps to those organizing below you? (J/K). Before you decide, a few things you should know:
1. Unions are not third party organizations.
Unions are democratic organizations formed by employees to fight for better standards in working conditions, compensation, and benefits. The Hearst Magazines Media Union is a bargaining unit of The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), a labor union of thousands of creative professionals who create media, broadcast news, scripted television, and motion pictures. Each member bargaining unit of the WGAE defines the boundaries and demands of its own editorial staff.
A number of media companies have unionized or made moves to form unions over the past few years. The WGAE already represents newsrooms at The Dodo, Fast Company, Gizmodo Media Group, HuffPost, Intercept, MTV News, Onion Inc., Refinery29, Salon, Slate, Talking Points Memo, ThinkProgress, Thrillist, VICE, and Vox Media.
“That gathering momentum has inspired many of us to realize we don’t have to accept the status quo and that we can protect ourselves and keep our standards high even as consolidation, layoffs, and industry experimentation has made many of our companies feel less stable,” says Lisa Schumer, staff writer for the Hearst Lifestyle Group and organizing committee member of the Hearst Magazines Media Union.
The Hearst Union is currently made up of editorial, photo, video, design, and social media employees across 24 of Hearst’s digital and print brands including Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and Elle.
2. Organizing gives workers a seat at the table.
Union membership expands the role of editorial staff in the management, decision-making, and direction of a company while protecting employees from the threat of exploitation. Employees working in editorial positions (written, video, social, design, photo, etc.) across any Hearst Magazines Media brand, are eligible for the union, including anyone working for a hubbed department that works directly with the brand(s). Managers and supervisors cannot join the union because they are considered to be part of a company’s management rather than its labor force.
“Many times, employees accept aspects of their jobs, say, low or stagnant pay, poor benefits, or lack of transparency from their superiors, because they think there’s no alternative,” says Schumer. “Working together with management to form a union empowers us as employees to help create the sort of workplace we can all be proud to call home.”
3. It’s your legal right.
If you feel uneasy about standing up to management, that’s okay. You can join a union without speaking out and participating directly in the organizing efforts. When hundreds of people unite to support one another in a union, no one person can be singled out or face company retaliation. In fact, it’s against the law. Supervisors or managers cannot threaten or bribe you regarding your participation in a union. You can’t be fired, disciplined, demoted, or penalized in any way for engaging in union activities.
4. Companies can either voluntarily recognize a union or insist on a union election.
To form a union, an employee organizing committee made up of diverse volunteers must prepare a program of union demands to present to co-workers. The Hearst Union Organizing Committee formulated a union program to specifically address diversity, transparency, compensation, and editorial standards to form a more equitable workplace. The union program is then presented to fellow employees, who are asked to sign union membership cards to show their support. The goal, as recommended by the WGAE, is to sign-up a “size-able majority” of co-workers. In early November, workers formerly asked Hearst to voluntarily recognize the union.
Despite over 60 percent of employees signing union cards, Hearst corporate management refused and requested a formal election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency responsible for enforcing labor laws and administering union elections when employers insist on holding a formal election process. So the Hearst Magazines Media Union filed for a formal election. Schumer says this election will likely take place in early January, but an exact date has not yet been set.
“It’s not unusual for managers to misunderstand their workers’ need for a union and to request a NLRB election (which is the process we’re in the midst of now) and it’s not something the industry should be scared of,” said Schumer. “It’s a different road than voluntary recognition, but it’ll still lead to the same place.”
At a NLRB hearing on December 12, Hearst representatives argued that the Hearst Magazines Media Union, which would encompass hundreds of employees across 24 brands, should be broken up into six smaller bargaining units. Women’s Wear Daily reports the proposed division is a tactic “to dissuade workers from forming a union, and potentially prevent some staffers from being able to vote.”
(And to complicate matters, Hearst employees may already be covered by another union! See this story from Bloomberg last week; it’s not clear at this point how this will effect this process or the upcoming election.)
5. Bargaining a new contract will not happen overnight.
If a majority of votes are cast in favor of the union in the election expected to happen in January, the NLRB will certify the Hearst Magazines Media Union as the bargaining representative for the editorial staff across all Hearst brands. With this certification, Hearst will be legally obligated to cease further unilateral changes to employee benefits and to recognize the union. All future changes must be negotiated through the collective bargaining process.
Employee nominated representatives from each Hearst brand will serve on the union’s bargaining committee. The union will do its best to ensure the bargaining committee is made up of a diverse group of volunteers from a range of brands and positions. Management has no say in who makes up the bargaining committee.
When the time comes to head to the bargaining table, the committee will send out an extensive survey to all union members to share their concerns and issues they would like to see negotiated in the eventual contract. The responses to the survey will determine what’s important to unit members and needs to be brought to the bargaining table.
“It can take several months before bargaining is complete, and that period of uncertainty can be stressful, especially for those who aren’t directly involved,” says Schumer. “But it’s also an exciting time, because we all get the rare opportunity to express what we want out of our workplace and work together to effect change.
6. Editorial unions are here to stay.
Newsrooms around the country have pushed to unionize not only for the benefit of current workers, but for those who will come after. Media industry union members are working together to build a long-term movement to address systemic issues, protect the rights of journalists and diversify newsrooms.
“It’s my hope that, in a few years, having a union will be as standard in editorial as it is in, say, manufacturing or education,” says Schumer. “In an industry as unstable as ours, unions make sense, and I think that’s going to become more and more evident.”
Shaye DiPasquale is a freelance writer, social media manager, and content creator. She recently graduated from Elizabethtown College, where she studied Mass Communications and Women & Gender Studies. Her writing has appeared on Her Campus, HelloFlo, Her Culture, Substream Magazine, The Owl, NJMOM and more. She is also the founder of createHER Collective, a community for young changemakers and creators to collaborate on initiatives through creative exchange.
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