How Media Workers are Organizing in the Dual Economy

With journalism moving from a stable to a precarious profession, digital media workers have become some of the most organized in the startup world

America has become a dual economy, with excessive riches for the few on the top and precariousness and scarcity for those on the bottom. As a result, white collar workers who for the second half of the 20th Century enjoyed good pay, stability, and benefits are now fighting for basic rights as workers. One of the fields in which this change has been most visible is digital media, particularly this month as Vox and BuzzFeed News workers have challenged management with walkouts.
Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer at Splinter News and formerly a writer for Gawker, talks about the trend of labor activism in digital media.

Aaron Freedman: In the past few years digital media workers have been on the frontlines of unionizing private workplaces. Why is that?

Hamilton Nolan: I think that journalists are smart enough to understand the basic fact that unionizing is good for them. Once people in our industry saw unionization happening, the unavoidable logic of the idea really pushed it everywhere. People also want to see to it that companies that claim to have a social mission live up to their own rhetoric.

Worker ownership is re-entering American political debate, with Bernie Sanders now endorsing a policy for workers to gain ownership in the companies they work for. Do you think digital media workers could be at the front lines of that fight as well?

I think cooperative ownership is great, and in a sense coops are the most evolved form of unions—total ownership by the workers. That said, I have not seen any realistic pathways to that happening in our industry. Media is a very risky, up and down industry and I’m not sure how workers would go about taking ownership of established media companies, or if the risk would be worth it. That said if there is creative financing out there that incorporates a fair risk calculation I’m sure people would consider it.

Only a few decades ago, journalism was seen as a middle-class and upper-middle class career. Now we’re more likely to think of it as some of the most precarious, poorly compensated white collar work that exists. What happened?

The newspaper industry was stable, it had high profit margins, and it was widely unionized. It had a great run and created a lot of stable, well-paid jobs. The rise of the internet seriously undermined print media. I see our own industry’s union movement as part of an ongoing process to make journalism a stable, living wage career once again, not just a constant hustle that keeps workers in a precarious existence and doesn’t have an open door for a truly diverse group of people. Unions are in the process of rebuilding in new media what the print media used to have.

For a while it seemed like the unionization wave in digital media was not bleeding over into other startups. That changed earlier this year when Kickstarter’s staff announced they were unionizing. Do you think we’ll see more tech workers organizing? What are the challenges and opportunities for union organizing you see in those types of shops?

Tech will absolutely unionize. It is inevitable. For one thing, the biggest and richest and most powerful companies in America are all tech companies. It is not tenable for organized labor to be completely absent from the most powerful part of the economy. Tech must unionize for the sake of the labor movement in general. From the perspective of tech workers, the only way they are going to get their fair share of the fantastic profits being made is to work collectively. The logic, again, is unavoidable. I am certain that we will see more tech unions in the near future, although cracking the biggest tech companies will be a long term project.

The past few years have seen an uptick in militant organizing and strikes by teachers. Teachers, of course, have long been a heavily unionized workforce, but do you think their militancy could inspire similar efforts by the newly unionized crop of digital media workers?

Teachers are somewhat comparable to journalists in the sense that they are a lot of smart, decently educated, idealistic, and not particularly well-paid people. This also goes for academic workers. These groups are a prime source of labor activism: stepped on but organized, and they know what they need to do to make things better. I think that militancy already exists in media unions. You just saw the Vox walkout, for example. Militancy will probably grow in reaction to events. Teachers are stepped on in a more profound sense than media workers, but the more organized and conscious the workers in our industry become, the easier it will be to pull off strong labor actions to make this a fairer place to work.

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