Why Gawker's First Contract Is a Blueprint for Unions

For young workers, Solidarity Forever needs a new chorus. Here's one way.

By Paul Willcocks 7 Mar 2016 |

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publishers of newspapers.

Sure, the union contract for editorial staff at Gawker is a big deal because it's the first for a digital media company.

But the unconventional agreement also should be a big deal because it shows a way for unions to reverse decades of declining membership.

The editorial employees at the news/gossip website decided to unionize last June, joining the Writers Guild of America. Last week they approved a first contract.

It doesn't look much like a traditional union contract. It's seven pages long. There is no salary grid, or grievance process for fired employees. (Severance pay is set out.) The word seniority never appears.

But there are six minimum salary levels, from $50,000 to $150,000. Everybody gets three-per-cent annual pay increases in the three-year deal. If the company uses a contract employee for a year, it has to hire her or end the contract. And an editorial independence clause attempts to prevent the business side from placing or killing stories.

The lack of traditional salary grids and seniority clauses brought some raised eyebrows in the labour movement. The NewsGuild, part of the Communications Workers of America, is also trying to organize digital media workers and has complained publicly that the Writers Guild might sign weak contracts.

But my best guess is that the youngish workers at Gawker might not be much interested in seniority clauses. They want the interesting assignments or good shifts to go to the best candidate, not the person who has been there longest. (And so far, they're willing to trust management to mostly get that right.)

And they prefer a pay scale that sets a minimum salary and leaves them to negotiate the best personal deal, rather than a grid based on years on the job.

Reflecting new priorities

Canadian union membership has been on a long downward slide. In 1981, about 42 per cent of Canadian workers were in a union. Today, it's about 28 per cent. And that's only because 70 per cent of public sector workers are unionized. In the private sector, only 16 per cent of workers are in unions.

The biggest drop in the last 35 years has been among workers under 25. In 1981, one in four was in a union. Today, it's one in seven.

Membership fell for lots of reasons. Free trade agreements made it easy for businesses to shift work to places with no unions and low wages. The service economy brought many small workplaces and a transitory workforce, hard to organize.

And some governments adopted anti-union policies. In 2003, the BC Liberal government passed legislation making it easy for companies to get rid of unions in the health and social services sector.

But unions have also been unable to convince young workers to sign membership cards. The Gawker contract suggests they need to accept that younger workers see some core labour values -- like seniority clauses -- not only irrelevant, but contrary to their interests.

In my newspaper management days, a union representative once explained to me that the reporters on staff were all journeymen and all equally capable. So of course seniority was the only sensible way to assign work.

Sacrificing old orthodoxy

Based on the contract, Gawker employees don't buy that. They believe some reporters are more competent, care more and work harder, and that seniority clauses reduce their opportunities, and favour, sometimes, people who have been adequate for a long time. (Newspaper unions had their origins in the production departments, where seniority helped protect workers as they aged and perhaps slowed.)

And the Writers Guild was willing to sign a contract that reflected the priorities of the workers, not union orthodoxy.

There has been a flurry of organizing efforts in new media. Workers at Salon, Vice Media, Huffington Post and the Guardian U.S. have all formed unions.

In Canada, the Canadian Media Guild has been trying to organize Vice editorial staff for almost five months. The union might find some useful lessons in the Gawker agreement.

This isn't just an issue for unions. Growing inequality has begun to erode some of the foundations of Canadian society. Unions reduce inequality by raising wage and benefits, not just for members but for most workers. (Yes, they may also reduce competitiveness, but that does not change their levelling role.)

The Gawker editorial workers have their first contract. Unconventional, but one that reflects their needs. If management messes up -- plays favourites with pay, for example -- the next contract will likely be more restrictive. If they don't, a new model might emerge.

Unions seeking to reverse decades of decline should be looking very hard at this contract. Sacrificing the old orthodoxy is a small price to pay for bringing collective bargaining to a whole new workforce.  [Tyee]

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