2019 could be worse.
What exactly is the scenario described by union advocates when they organized digital publishers – including Vice, Gizmodo Media Group and recoding head quarter Vox Media – during the last years. If the times were tough, the argument continued, workers who joined a union would have a supporter and some protection.
Now that winter has arrived, these unions are expected to keep their promises. So far, they seem to be somewhat relieving employees affected by the cuts. But the unions have their limits.
In theory, the most important power that unions offer to employees in times of crisis is a seat at the table. This means that in the event of downsizing, mergers or sales, management is required to negotiate in good faith with members of the union's bargaining committee to minimize the impact on the workers.
This committee is usually composed of a group of unionized employees from the company who negotiate on behalf of their colleagues. A representative of Writers Guild of America East or NewsGuild, the two largest national unions representing digital media companies, can help workers in negotiations. Representatives of the management are sitting around the table. In addition, each party also uses legal counsel to lead discussions.
Unions are easier to negotiate if they have already entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the employer. If this is the case, there is a standard procedure for what happens when a company has to lay off, sell or restructure its employees.
For example, in the case of redundancies, the contract often prescribes conditions such as the number of weeks or months of layoff that employees will receive and the length of time they are covered by health insurance.
If management has recognized a union but has not yet agreed to a contract, negotiations may become more complicated as management must enter into a one-time agreement with the bargaining committee.
That's what happened to the Millennium-based digital information publication, Mic, which was sold to Bustle Digital Group last month and whose union has been negotiating several weeks of negotiations, including severance pay. Similarly, the Vox Media Negotiation Committee has negotiated with management regarding the conditions of termination, even though the union does not yet have a contract with the company.
In the case of Mic, the company runs out of cash and is therefore sold at a fraction of its valuation, so there is little financial compensation for the employees that the union can negotiate.
Nastaran Mohit, head of the New York NewsGuild, representing former Mic employees, wrote in an email to recoding"The financial situation of the company was even worse than what was reported, and the Guild has spent the last few weeks extracting every possible dollar."
The union has also publicly criticized the company's treatment of the sale to Bustle Digital Group, accusing Mic of breaking up the union since laid off all his unionized staff. If this claim is well-founded, the union could file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, the NLRB, which could take punitive measures against Mic, notably by forcing the press company to return to the bargaining table with the union.
Sometimes, in the best scenario for employees, unions can help avoid layoffs by negotiating instead an organizational restructuring or voluntary buyouts.
When Gizmodo Media's new parent company, Univision, initially wanted to fire 30% of the editorial staff, the union was more successful in negotiating voluntary exits. The parties have agreed on offers to purchase for nearly 20% of the members of the editorial team. These packages included 18 weeks of salary and health care.
"It's a great concrete example of what your union can do, and it's important for people to know that we've been able to do it just because we're focused on it," said Hamilton Nolan, editor-in-chief at Splinter. , a site Gizmodo. "Given that we live in a time when there will be much more media consolidation, sales and spin-offs, a union contract will make your life a lot easier if you're in that position. "
But there are limits to the powers of the unions. A union can not prevent a media company from sinking into the process or preventing a merger from occurring. In the case of a merger between two companies, the buyer generally recognizes an existing syndicate, but in the case of a sale of assets, he may have to renegotiate a contract from scratch, according to Lowell Peterson, director executive of WGAE. Peterson, however, said that in the case of digital media mergers, his union had helped to negotiate until now, the contract remained in effect.
And in the case of a sale of assets in which the company significantly modifies its activity – like a split for a company from another sector – it is possible that the union is completely dissolved. Worse still, there is virtually no protection for the union if a company completely closes its doors. This means, however, that the company can not sell to another company or re-launch the business in any way after closing.
"As in any industry, being unionized is not a quick fix," said Rebecca Givan, Associate Professor of Social Studies and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, "This can not fix a failing business model. ".
At the same time, some editors in the media argue – usually unofficially – that unions can work against their workers because a unionized business may be less attractive to buyers. This is because, for example, guaranteeing a minimum wage at all levels or offering generous severance benefits can be seen as a reduction in expenditure. That said, recoding impossible to find examples of mergers and acquisitions in digital media that have failed because of a union.
Some media founders, who claim to support unions in general, have publicly explained why they do not agree with this in their own companies.
While many competing newsrooms were starting to organize in 2015, Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed said at a staff meeting I think a union "is not great for the company" and the relationship between management and employees "is much more confrontational" with a union involved. Last year, at another staff meeting, he expressed similar concerns.
When employees of Upworthy, a fast-growing, fast-growing digital media company, were trying to organize in 2015, co-founder Eli Pariser discouraged efforts, writing that a union "could have a cost to the company in terms of our ability to raise capital."
Digne did not end up getting organized. In August, the company laid off 31 employees.