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Why More Journalists Are Unionizing—and What They Face In the Process

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Thursday was another dark day for members of the journalism industry, when the billionaire owner of DNAInfo and Gothamist abruptly shuttered the network of websites. To add an extra sting to the news, reporters and editors in New York had voted to unionize only a week ago, the latest in a wave of digital newsrooms to organize for better working conditions and job security.

In a letter posted to the sites at 5 p.m., owner Joe Ricketts said that despite loyal audiences in several American cities and acclaim for covering important local stories, “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure.” 115 people are now unemployed, and archives are not yet available for the thousands of articles that reporters published. Only the New York newsroom voted to organize, but writers in Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles also lost their jobs. The Writers Guild of America East, which organized the DNAInfo and Gothamist staff, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ricketts didn’t mention the union vote in his letter, but the TD Ameritrade founder and Donald Trump supporter is notoriously anti-union—he even published a blog post in September titled “Why I’m Against Unions at Businesses I Create.” In the post, Ricketts argued that unions “promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.”

The timing of the decision suggests that this isn’t strictly an economic decision.

“This move just shows that bosses’ opposition to unions isn’t about the money—surely giving the workers at DNAinfo the various ‘ists’ would be less of a loss than shuttering them entirely, particularly for a billionaire—and all about power,” Sarah Jaffe, a labor journalist and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, told Levo.

“Rather than concede a tiny bit more of it to the people who make these sites run, Ricketts would rather shut them down, counting on his ally, Trump’s National Labor Relations Board, not to enforce rules against such open union-busting,” she added.

It’s been easy to assume that unions were going out of style: manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and changes to state and federal labor laws have led to declining membership and influence. But a new generation has started to see how valuable unions can be—for everyone from fast food workers to content creators.

In the past few years, journalists at Vice, MTV News, the Guardian US, HuffPost, Slate, and ThinkProgress voted to unionize, along with the now-defunct Gawker, Fusion, and Al Jazeera America—just to name a few. Workers in low-wage industries have also joined forces to fight for better pay and more stable schedules.

Nastaran Mohit, an organizer with the News Guild of New York, tells Levo that journalists have an advantage over workers in other fields.

“What media workers have in their favor is a public platform with which to they can build a broad community of support with readers, the public, and the larger labor and journalism community,” she said. “The industry is bottoming out right before their eyes, and the connection between the degradation of their working conditions and journalistic standards really can’t be ignored any longer."

The idea behind unionizing is to create more protections for individuals within the industry.

"Workers in media are now organizing aggressively because they fully understand how volatile and precarious their own employment is," said Mohit. "And the only practical way they can address that is by organizing collectively."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.7% of the American workforce belonged to a union in 2016, which means most people are at the whim of their boss. And, the current political climate gives corporations and bosses immense power over their employees.

People in all industries face uncertainty about everything from health insurance to retirement savings. Unions negotiate all of those details and more, like severance and overtime pay, vacation and family leave, and protection from discrimination. Some unions even include provisions designed to deal with sexual harassment—which could help stop predators like Harvey Weinstein from operating with impunity.

Ricketts isn’t the only corporate magnate to oppose unions in their businesses—journalists at the Los Angeles Times are currently trying to organize, in defiance of parent company Tronc, and Walmart is famous for its anti-union training videos—but that opposition isn’t likely to stop people from forming unions in their own workplaces.

“This is likely to be the case more and more under Trump, and is a reason for more militant organizing, not less. Emboldened billionaires won’t be nicer bosses if you capitulate to every demand,” said Jaffe. “Instead, media workers, like all workers, should be thinking about ways to build and maintain power on the job and off.”

(Image via DNAInfo)

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