Ratified Gawker Labor Pact Sets Tone for Digital Newsrooms

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By Tyrone Richardson

March 3 — The recently ratified first labor contract between members of the Writers Guild of America East and Gawker Media LLC sets a new standard and could help increase the chances for collective bargaining agreements at other digital newsrooms, university professors and union presidents told Bloomberg BNA March 2-3.

The three-year contract covering 99 editorial employees of the New York City-based news source was ratified March 1, making it the first CBA since the WGAE launched an aggressive campaign to organize digital newsroom employees more than six years ago . The campaign's central idea is to reach beyond the WGAE's traditional membership such as TV news and sitcom writers.

Ken Margolies, a senior associate at the Worker Institute at Cornell, part of the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Bloomberg BNA March 2 that the ratified pact could help the WGAE with organizing and contract talks.

“Others would see this contract as a pattern they can follow and it will also encourage other groups, showing this is something we can achieve,” he said.

The WGAE and NewsGuild-CWA are orchestrating separate campaigns to organize staffers within digital newsrooms, addressing issues such as workplace standards .

The NewsGuild and WGAE international presidents have told Bloomberg BNA that digital-only publications are largely staffed with young personnel who are seeking higher wages and a voice in the decision-making process.

So far, the two organizing campaigns have successfully won representation of more than 500 digital journalists at companies such as Guardian US, Vice Media, the Huffington Post and ThinkProgress .

Gawker Sets Tone

As the Gawker contract is ratified, the WGAE is now moving forward on other fronts. It currently is negotiating a first contract for its represented workers at Vice and ThinkProgress.

“Each digital media company has its own economic model and working conditions, but the fact that we were able to negotiate a strong and effective collective-bargaining agreement at Gawker is certainly an indication that we should be able to negotiate strong and effective agreements at the other digital media companies,” WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson told Bloomberg BNA March 3.

For full-time employees, the ratified deal at Gawker includes a minimum $50,000 yearly salary, a grievance process, an at-will employment clause, and annual raises of 3 percent. The contract also includes certain rights for freelancers. One of the major differences for freelancers is if a “night shift” or “weekend” contractor/freelancer works an average of five shifts per week over a 52-week span, Gawker must pay the rate it pays a unit employee performing a comparable task. Also, if the contractor/freelancer works an average of five shifts per week over a 52-week span, the company must decide whether to offer full-time employment, continuation as a contractor, or “terminate the contractor relationship,” according to the CBA. Other details include the company's pledge to provide full-time employees with health care, severance pay and matching 401(k) contributions.

Company officials March 1 lauded the agreed-upon CBA, telling Bloomberg BNA that the deal “retains the flexibility to run the business effectively in a fast-paced and fluid environment.”

NewsGuild President Bernie Lunzer told Bloomberg BNA March 3 that the he applauds the WGAE's ratified deal with Gawker, saying each news publication has different needs.

Referring to transient workers hired for discrete projects, Lunzer said Gawker is “following more of an entertainment model contract which is more that workers can come and go and they are compensated.” He added, “That’s not right or wrong, but it's up to the group.”

Adapting to Industry Needs

Michael H. LeRoy, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, agreed, saying certain terms—such as freelancer guideline—allow Gawker to shift its numbers of personnel according to its particular needs.

Referring to workers hired on a contract basis, he said, “Basically, the company must decide after a year whether to hire the person, let the person go, or continue the person as a contractor.”

“The point is that this provision allows Gawker a fairly lengthy period for using writing that is outside the bargaining unit,” LeRoy said. “Also, the language does not seem to prevent the company from sub-contracting writing or other production to another content-producing firm, with its own nonunion writing and production staff.”

LeRoy described the CBA as “a solid first contract for employees,” which increases wages and advances the union’s interests “with a union security clause and dues provision.”

“The new CBA has language that borrows from other WGAE agreements but also provides flexibility, so this bodes well for setting a pattern for other Internet publishers,” he said.

Cornell's Margolies told Bloomberg BNA the deal includes some non-traditional news organization contract terms, including attention to freelancers.

“This is one of the many examples of how work has changed. Traditionally it has been a challenge for unions to change with it, but this is an example of how they have made a successful step in that direction,” he said.

Room for Growth

In addition to contract talks, the two unions are still pressing for a larger footprint in digital media. The ratified deal at Gawker is expected to make more writers and editors give unions a second look, Lunzer said.

While the NewsGuild-CWA and WGAE compete for representations, Lunzer described the WGAE as an “ally” in an overall campaign to organize digital newsrooms. The NewsGuild-CWA represents writers at Guardian US, adding to years of representing digital journalists at companies such as the New York Times, Bloomberg BNA and the Daily Beast.

“We share same values on most cases and the more both groups are working to bring folks in, that's just fantastic,” Lunzer said. “People will see this for digital workers and they will see more reason to explore the labor movement and they will start to reconsider and see this as something maybe they want.”

LeRoy agreed, saying the CBA at Gawker could create a domino effect.

“Given Gawker’s prominence, yes, the agreement should facilitate unionization of smaller entities,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the ratified Gawker contract is available at http://src.bna.com/cX7.