Wave of Digital Media Organizing Continues as Al Jazeera America Goes Union

Mario Vasquez October 6, 2015

Al Jazeera America staff after the announcement of the vote's total. (NewsGuild / Facebook)

The union­iza­tion of dig­i­tal media con­tin­ues — now at Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca (AJAM), after the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board con­firmed this morn­ing that the news publication’s dig­i­tal work­ers vot­ed 32 – 5 in favor of union rep­re­sen­ta­tion under the News­Guild of New York, an affil­i­ate of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA).

AJAM dig­i­tal work­ers had pre­vi­ous­ly sought vol­un­tary union recog­ni­tion from employ­ers on Sep­tem­ber 3. As we enter our third year in the pub­lic eye, a trou­bling lack of trans­paren­cy, incon­sis­tent man­age­ment and lack of clear redress have per­sist­ed at AJAM Dig­i­tal. Dis­crep­an­cies in salaries, respon­si­bil­i­ties and the way job per­for­mance is eval­u­at­ed under­mine our work and the har­mo­ny of our work­place,” read a mis­sion state­ment released at the time. AJAM man­age­ment, how­ev­er, declined to rec­og­nize the staff’s desire to union­ize — a move which, while legal, usu­al­ly makes union recog­ni­tion more dif­fi­cult for work­ers. This trig­gered an NLRB-run elec­tion that took place Sep­tem­ber 29, with mail-in bal­lots con­tin­u­ing to come in until yesterday.

Keep this report­ing pos­si­ble by mak­ing a dona­tion today. All gifts made by Oct. 7 will be matched, mak­ing dou­ble the impact.

Of the approx­i­mate­ly 50 dig­i­tal work­ers at AJAM, five had been des­ig­nat­ed super­vi­sors who would not be includ­ed in the bar­gain­ing. Up until this morn­ing, man­age­ment had also con­test­ed that nine edi­tors could not be includ­ed in the bar­gain­ing unit, argu­ing that their work as senior staff mem­bers clas­si­fied them as super­vi­sors and thus inel­i­gi­ble to join the union. But today’s results, over­whelm­ing­ly pro-union, seems to have swayed man­age­ment on this point of contention.

We wel­come the result of the elec­tion and now that the process has been com­plet­ed we will not main­tain our chal­lenge to the sta­tus of the nine indi­vid­u­als in ques­tion. We warm­ly rec­og­nize them as mem­bers of the bar­gain­ing unit and we look for­ward to work­ing with all our staff in an open and trans­par­ent man­ner,” an AJAM spokesper­son told In These Times.

React­ing to AJAM management’s con­ces­sion, online news edi­tor Gregg Levine says, It has always been our belief that these nine were solid­ly mem­bers of our news­room, shar­ing the same work­load and bur­dens as many who were not con­test­ed. It would have been nice if Al Jazeera could have dropped their objec­tions before the elec­tion, or even before the bal­lots were tal­lied as we want­ed every vote count­ed — no mat­ter the out­come — as that is the most demo­c­ra­t­ic way forward.”

The elec­tion results bring AJAM into the fold of recent­ly suc­cess­ful dig­i­tal media orga­niz­ing con­duct­ed by the News­Guild of New York. The edi­to­r­i­al staff at the Guardian US vot­ed to join the News­Guild in late July, with man­age­ment vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­niz­ing the out­come soon after. Sev­er­al addi­tion­al union dri­ves are under­way and expect­ed to become pub­lic soon, with CWA for­ward­ing a $500,000 inter­nal grant to the News­Guild last month in order to boost orga­niz­ing for the 2,000 mem­ber CWA local.

Orga­niz­ing at anoth­er union, the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca-East, has secured union recog­ni­tion for edi­to­r­i­al staffers at Gawk­er, Salon, and Vice. Bren­dan James of the Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times report­ed last week that Huff­in­g­ton Post employ­ees would be seek­ing union­iza­tion with the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca-East, sign­ing on after also con­sid­er­ing the News­Guild of New York.

Reached via email, Gawk­er edi­to­r­i­al staffer Hamil­ton Nolan offered con­grat­u­la­tions to AJAM dig­i­tal work­ers. Refer­ring to man­age­men­t’s ini­tial refusal to rec­og­nize the union and the bat­tle over the nine edi­tors who would be includ­ed in the bar­gain­ing unit, Nolan remarked that AJAM man­age­ment should stop act­ing like pricks,” adding that they had been fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle against their own employ­ees and mak­ing them­selves look bad in the process.” (As not­ed above, man­age­ment even­tu­al­ly did con­cede the fight over the nine editors.)

A March 2014 study released by the Pew Research Cen­ter notes that the rate of hir­ing at dig­i­tal news pub­li­ca­tions has been explo­sive” in recent years: Two years ago, Buz­zFeed had about a half dozen edi­to­r­i­al employ­ees. Now it has at least 170. Three years ago, Bleach­er Report had no paid writ­ers; now there are about 50. The rapid­ly expand­ing glob­al Vice Media oper­a­tion has already hired 48 more staffers in the U.S. this year alone.”

As this explo­sive growth in dig­i­tal report­ing con­tin­ues, man­age­ment look­ing bad in the process” often seems to be inevitable. In August, Buz­zFeed CEO Jon­ah Peretti told work­ers at a com­pa­ny meet­ing, I think unions have had a pos­i­tive impact on a lot of places, like if you’re work­ing on an assem­bly line, and if you’re nego­ti­at­ing with man­age­ment it can make a huge dif­fer­ence, par­tic­u­lar­ly when labor is more replace­able.” But as it per­tains to a union at Buz­zfeed, he said I don’t think a union is right for Buz­zFeed,” adding that unions cre­ate an adver­sar­i­al” rela­tion­ship between man­age­ment and employees.

AJAM staff clear­ly dis­agree. I am tru­ly excit­ed and hon­ored to cel­e­brate the over­whelm­ing yes vote with my col­leagues today,” E. Tam­my Kim, an AJAM fea­tures staff writer, says. We’ve been orga­niz­ing to improve the con­di­tions of our work­place — job secu­ri­ty, fair eval­u­a­tions, a griev­ance pro­ce­dure, cost-of-liv­ing adjust­ments and pay increas­es, etc. — but also to have a voice and sup­port one anoth­er with­in a for­mal structure.”

The Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca is a spon­sor of In These Times. Spon­sors play no role in edi­to­r­i­al content. 

Mario Vasquez is a writer from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @mario_vsqz or email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_JkRTuBCpnw’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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