A record number of journalists and media workers in the U.S. joined unions in the first half of 2021.
By mid-July, workers from no less than 29 organizations had asked for union representation. There were 37 successful organizing drives in all of 2020 — a high mark over the last five years.
What are the benefits of joining a union? How does a media worker organize their newsroom? And can freelancers benefit from unionization as well?
The power of a union
Being in a union allows media workers to fight for their jobs, wages, working conditions, publications, quality reporting and more. When workers band together, they can assess issues they face, show a collective front and exert more pressure on those in power to act in their favor.
“We're doing it because we care about our jobs. We care about our colleagues’ jobs and their protections, and we care about what role we have in the community, in our democracy,” said Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild, the largest union for news professionals.
For Scott Dance, an environment reporter at the Baltimore Sun and a guild leader at the paper, unionizing is all about having a seat at the table. It’s about having input on your wages and working conditions. “It doesn’t mean you always get what you want, but it’s an official means through which you can be heard,” he said.
Unions allow journalists to fight for issues that affect them and their colleagues. This might mean pushing for better wages, more comprehensive benefits, or improved working conditions.
Journalists can harness the collective power of a union to advocate for themselves and achieve tangible results. In 2019, workers who unionized with the Los Angeles Times Guild reached a three-year agreement with ownership through which pay raises of at least 5% were put into effect for the majority of employees, followed by a 2.5% raise in each of the ensuing two years.
When workers form a union, they have the right to request information from their employer, such as financial disclosures and salary data. This can help shed light on injustices, and allow employees to address them. “As good journalists, we’re obligated to minimize harm, be transparent and accountable. That’s what we want to do when we form a union,” said Schleuss.
After forming their union, Los Angeles Times employees demanded the release of salary data, which showed that women and journalists of color were being paid less than their male counterparts. Workers filed a lawsuit against the paper, and in 2020 a judge approved retroactive compensation for 240 current and former employees.
As media outlets get bought up by hedge funds, billionaires and holding companies that prioritize revenue over quality reporting — slashing salaries and laying off staff along the way — unions enable media workers to fight for their livelihoods and that of their publications.
In 2020, as The Baltimore Sun was poised to be bought by the Manhattan hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the paper’s guild launched the Save the Sun campaign in an effort to find another owner. While the campaign did not succeed, union protection allowed workers to go to the media and voice their concerns regarding the future of their newsroom, without fear of consequence.
Unions protect workers from unjust firing. A journalist who is an at-will employee (which is often the case when not unionized) can be fired for any number of (legal) reasons, such as pursuing a story that management doesn’t like. A unionized employee, on the other hand, is protected by just-cause employment rights. “We want to be able to do our work freely and with independence so that we can bring you the best stories and coverage possible without fear of reprisal from other forces at play,” explained Schleuss.
The importance of unions during the pandemic
Media workers’ unions have offered much-needed protections during the pandemic. Importantly, unions protected jobs when media companies were announcing layoffs, buyouts and furloughs. While over 16,000 U.S. journalists lost their jobs in 2020, most of these losses did not happen to unionized workers, said Schleuss.
In May 2020, the Los Angeles Times furloughed workers for one week a month, which resulted in a 25% salary loss. However, union members were able to strike a deal with management, which prevented layoffs for members of the guild and reduced furloughs to one day a week. In addition, the Times committed to applying for California’s Work Sharing program, enabling union members at the publication to receive unemployment benefits which fully covered their loss in salary.
Are you interested in organizing your newsroom? Here’s where to begin.
(1) Start conversations with colleagues
By talking with colleagues, journalists can identify shared issues and gauge whether or not their co-workers might be willing to work together to fix them. Once the group is big enough, official efforts to unionize can begin.
(2) Decide whether or not to join a bigger union
While some unions are independent, many organizations decide to join a larger one like the NewsGuild, which represents over 25,000 media workers across North America. These larger unions have staff and professional organizers that can guide media workers through the process of organizing.
(3) File for an election with the National Labor Relations Board
To start the election process with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), journalists need to show support from at least 30% of the employees. Then, they would file for an election with the NLRB and hold a democratic vote where employees get to decide — anonymously — if they would like to form a union. If a majority of workers vote yes, the union is certified.
(4) Or go through voluntary recognition
An easier path to union certification is voluntary recognition. If a supermajority — over 50% — of employees want to form a union, they can approach their company with the request. The company can decide to recognize the action without having to hold an election. The union and company can then head to the bargaining table directly.
Freelance journalists can join unions, too
Freelancers are independent contractors. Unlike employees, they can’t collectively negotiate under the NLRA. “As freelance journalists, we are an incredibly atomized workforce that the industry increasingly relies upon. Yet, we have very few rights and very few abilities to communicate with each other. That makes us a workforce that’s really easy to exploit,” said Abigail Higgins, a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. and an active member of the IWW Freelance Journalists Union (IWW FJU) and the Freelancers Solidarity Project.
Small freelancer unions with limited power, like the IWW FJU and some chapters of the NewsGuild, do exist. These units allow freelancers to work together on issues such as assistance with negotiating rates, sharing ideas, information and training, and helping their members on an individual basis. “Being in a union means we have this really fantastic way to communicate with each other, to organize together and to fight for our rights collectively,” explained Higgins.
Higgins said her freelancers’ union has allowed her to obtain a press pass that she wouldn’t otherwise have been able to obtain. A union can also help freelancers share their rates and know whether or not they’re being exploited.
In 2020, when Vox Media tried to prohibit freelancers from sharing their pay information, the IWW FJU launched a Twitter campaign. The union shared the rates of Vox freelancers, publicizing the exploitative contract. As a result, Vox took the prohibition out of its freelancers’ contracts.
“There is remarkable power when people are connected,” said Higgins.