A Union, Explained

A primer on digital media unions and the process of collective bargaining

What’s a Union?

A union is a collective of workers who organize to improve their workplace, but there’s more to it than that.

Labor unions are why weekends exist. Labor unions are why the 40-hour work week and overtime pay exist. Unions are also why we have the minimum wage and the National Labor Relations Act that protects workers’ rights in the United States. They are how workers get a seat at the table with management, how they can guarantee themselves higher wages and raises, health insurance, and myriad other benefits that, otherwise, management would not be compelled to offer or formally guarantee.

A union is how workers can come together to discuss their working conditions, their wages, and more without fear of reprisal from management. A union is the workers’ answer to the power imbalance inherent in the workplace. A union’s members are the source of labor, and there is no workplace, no product, no labor performed without them. A union is worker recognition of these facts. It’s workers coming together, refusing to take only what is given to them by those who profit from their work, and instead seeking to improve the conditions of their lives and their workplace.

A union is not alone, though: a union is part of a larger labor movement. There are thousands of news, television, film, and digital media industry workers who fall under the banner of the Writers Guild of America, East—which is itself part of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the United States, and which is also part of the broader labor movement in America and worldwide. One union by itself might have power in its workplace, but we all have more power and influence together, in solidarity.

Since the Guild began in 1954, our member base has grown to include not just film, television, and radio writers, but also the creative professionals behind webseries, nonfiction television, digital news, and podcasts. No matter what changes have impacted the media industry, the Guild has always played a central role in fighting for—and winning—better standards for our members.

And as we’ve learned from decades of Writers Guild organizing victories in the Film, TV, and Radio industries, the more digital media outlets unionize, the more effective our bargaining and contracts and future organizing attempts will be.

There is power in a union, and that power helps union members secure the wages, working conditions, benefits, protections, and rights they deserve.

How to form a union

So you want to form a union – great!

The first and most important step is talking to your co-workers: Gauging interest in a union at your workplace, and finding like-minded people who are interested in organizing, is crucial to move the process forward. You’ll be having a lot of conversations with your colleagues during the organizing process, so get comfortable with it as soon as possible! And remember, you are not alone; you can always reach out to a WGAE staff organizer by filling out this form.

There are several steps to forming and winning recognition for your union. Once you have enough colleagues on board, you’ll form an organizing committee. This is the group that will talk to more employees to assess support for the union, as well plan and execute actions (like lunches, social media blasts, or even strikes). The organizing committee can also determine who will be in your bargaining unit, which is the group of employees that will be covered by your union. Forming a diverse committee is key to its success. A group composed of employees who represent a variety of interests (e.g., part-timers and full-timers, office-based and remote employees) will be better able to speak for the entire bargaining unit.

After you’ve formed the organizing committee, it’s time to start talking to your colleagues who would be a part of the bargaining unit, and – if they’re supportive of the union – getting them to sign union cards. These signify that your unit’s members have asked a particular guild to represent them in collective bargaining negotiations.

Once a strong majority of your bargaining unit has signed cards, you may be ready to approach your company’s management to demand recognition. The best way to gain recognition for your union is through a voluntary card check, in which a neutral third party (like an independent arbitrator) verifies that a majority of members of the prospective bargaining unit have signed union cards. Sometimes, a company will ask that union recognition come via an online election or – in some cases – a National Labor Relations Board vote.

This is also where the organizing committee comes in: As you await recognition from your company, the committee can plan actions to pressure the company to give voluntary recognition. These actions – including pizza lunches, Slack strikes, changing Twitter avatars, and even strikes – can be very effective in pushing a company in the right direction.

Your rights

Once the Writers Guild becomes your bargaining representative after either recognition or an election, you will start the negotiation process.

However, even before you negotiate and ratify your first union contract, you have rights as a member of a recognized union.

In any investigatory meeting with management that you believe might result in disciplinary action, you’re entitled to have a union rep present. In practice, this could be a meeting with management where you’re questioned about your performance or other workplace behavior. As long as you reasonably believe the answers you provide could lead to discipline or other adverse action (like a change in working conditions) by the company, you have the right to ask for a union representative. You can also ask point-blank: “Could this meeting result in discipline?”

If the meeting has already started and you don’t have a union representative present, you have the right to pause the meeting and not answer any more questions until a union representative can be present. These are called Weingarten Rights.

Regardless, once employees are represented by a union, management is required to notify the Writers Guild if they take any disciplinary action against an employee. If management wishes to terminate an employee during the negotiation phase, they’re required to both notify and bargain with the Writers Guild.

Further reading:

WGA East Digital Media Union Timeline

2015

June: Gawker Media – Deadspin, Gawker.com, Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel, Kotaku, and Lifehacker – unionizes

August: Salon & VICE Editorial unionize

September: ThinkProgress unionizes

2016

January: HuffPost unionizes

March: Gawker Media ratifies their first union contract

April: VICE Editorial ratifies their first union contract

July: ThinkProgress ratifies their first union contract

November: Fusion unionizes

2017

January: HuffPost ratifies their first union contract; Univision forms Gizmodo Media Group and Gawker Media, Fusion, and The Root become one unit.

February: MTV News unionizes

March: Thrillist unionizes

April: The Intercept unionizes

September: VICE Production – VICE news, Viceland, and digital video – unionizes

October: DNAinfo/Gothamist unionizes

2018

January: Slate and Vox Media – Curbed, Eater, Polygon, Racked, Recode, SB Nation, The Verge, Vox.com, and Vox Studio – unionize

April: Onion, Inc. – The A.V. Club, Clickhole, The Onion, The Takeout – unionizes

May: Talking Points Memo and The Dodo (the second company owned by Group Nine Media to do so) unionize

July: Fast Company unionizes; The Intercept ratifies their first union contract

October: Thrillist and Salon ratify their first union contracts

December: The Dodo ratifies their first union contract; ThinkProgress ratifies their second union contract

2019

January: Slate ratifies their first union contract; Refinery29 unionizes

February: CBSN (CBS News’ 24/7 Streaming Channel) unionizes

March: GMG (formerly Gawker) ratifies second contract

April: Future plc and Gimlet unionize

June: Fast Company ratifies their first union contract; Vox ratifies first union contract after a day-long walkout

July: Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) unionizes

August: The Ringer unionizes

November: Hearst Magazines announces union campaign; Vice Media acquires Refinery29

December: Refinery29 joins VICE Union contract

2020

February: After being acquired by Spotify, The Ringer begins union negotiations; HuffPost ratifies their second union contract

March: CBSN ratifies their first union contract

July: Hearst Magazines wins NLRB vote to unionize

August: Chalkbeat unionizes

October: Parcast and NowThis – another company owned by Group Nine Media – unionize

November: Bustle Digital Group (Bustle, Elite Daily, Input, Inverse, Mic, Nylon, Romper, and The Zoe Report) unionizes

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