Why media unions are gaining momentum now more than ever
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a group of younger employees at The New Yorker got together to talk about how they could feel more supported in their lives and in their workplace. The discussion eventually led to the possibility of unionizing—something that had been attempted unsuccessfully at the magazine in 1976. Not long after, they began organizing a new union drive.
“The election made me a lot more cognizant of my own communities, and one of those communities was my workplace,” said David Muto, a senior web producer at The New Yorker who got involved with organizing efforts last September.
In June, employees sent a letter to editor David Remnick asking that the magazine and its owner, Condé Nast, recognize a new employee union. Last month, The New Yorker did, joining a rapidly growing list of media brands whose employees have organized in recent years, including The Intercept, Vox Media, Vice Media, Slate, and Huffington Post. (Even the humorists at The Onion recently announced plans to unionize through the Writers Guild of America, East.)
No matter how you look at it, unions are having a moment, especially in digital media.
“There’s just a political atmosphere that’s really conducive to media organizing,” said Stephanie Basile, an organizing coordinator at Communications Workers of America (CWA), a labor union representing 700,000 people. “Journalism is under attack, facts are under attack, the truth itself is under attack.”
Labor organizing has traditionally been the domain of industrial and public service workers. Most of the largest unions in the U.S. cover trades like manufacturing and warehousing (the Teamsters and the United Steelworkers represent a combined 2.6 million members in North America) or public-sector employees, like the nurses and sanitation workers who help make up the 1.6 million members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
But overall union membership has been in steady decline for decades, driven by anti-union legislation such as “right-to-work” laws in 28 states and, most recently, the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court ruling, which barred public employers from requiring union dues. In 1983, 20% of Americans were in unions, compared to just 11% in 2017. Blue-collar industries have seen some of the steepest drops. Manufacturing union membership decreased from 28% to just 9% during the same span.
Recently, however, unionizing efforts have been under way in white-collar professions across the country. Adjunct professors—long subjected to low pay, abysmal benefits, and lack of job security—have organized en masse in recent years, with at least 20 new faculty unions certified in 2016 alone. After a 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision allowing graduate students to unionize, students working as teaching and research assistants also organized union drives across the country, often meeting considerable pushback.
Like academia, the media industry has been especially ripe for labor organizing. “Many of the media organizations we’re working with haven’t had a raise in 10 years or more,” Basile said.
But money isn’t the only reason these media companies are organizing. Issues like job security, diversity, and career development are also driving forces—as well as an impulse to protect the future of the profession as media companies get swallowed up by larger corporate entities. “That’s a common concern in the journalism industry right now, protecting the integrity of publications from corporate parents,” Muto said. “There’s always been this threat of either cuts to us or reorganization [by The New Yorker’s parent company Condé Nast]. We just wanted to make sure…that we could act collectively to protect ourselves.”
Part of what’s been so exciting about the recent wave of union efforts in media is just how wide-ranging it has been. “We’re seeing organizations we never thought would unionize in a thousand years [unionize] this year,” said Basile, who adds that she has seen less resistance this year than ever before, although even successful campaigns encounter obstacles.
Muto and his colleagues’ efforts at The New Yorker reflect this. Given that the magazine is such an old, storied institution, “there has always been a little bit of hesitancy when it comes to rocking the boat. Especially [when] a lot of people come here and it’s their dream job,” Muto said. “Because we’re largely not taught about unions and how they work, I think a lot of people [were] wary and [didn’t] know what forming a union [would] mean for them.”
Muto feels optimistic about the road ahead for The New Yorker, which will begin collective bargaining for a new contract. Despite the coming challenges—making sure everyone’s needs are met, maintaining collective strength and momentum—the process so far has been positive. “For me, [it] really tapped into wanting to improve [my workplace] community and make sure people felt looked after,” he said. “It’s not just a union we’ve built, it’s also relationships with people and a better understanding of what’s going on with one another.”