Huffington’s Bogus Defense of Unpaid Bloggers

Mike Elk

While many view the labor practices of the Huffington Post as affecting only a small handful of writers, Arianna Huffington’s willingness to classify people working for her site as non-employees” could impact the rights of all workers.

As unpaid internships become the norm among a new generation of workers, more and more employers are finding interesting ways to classify those working for them as non-employees” who don’t need to be paid. This classification occurs despite the fact that employers often force unpaid workers to obey the same rules as paid workers.

Huffington, who sold her business to AOL for $315 million early this year, continues to deny that her website’s unpaid bloggers (and there may be as many as 8,000) have an employee-like relationship to the company. (After the sale, The Newspaper Guild (TNG) and the National Writers Union (NWU) in March called for bloggers to boycott the Huffington Post and join an electronic picket line against the publication.)

She and Huffington Post Executive Editor Nico Pitney have argued that their bloggers needn’t be paid because writing for Huffington is like writing for social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. In a candid e-mail exchange on a private liberal listserv that was leaked early this year, Pitney compared unpaid Huffington bloggers to Twitter or Facebook users, saying:

i wonder whether twitter, facebook, and dailykos will ever pay me for the content i’ve provided them, and which they’ve happily monetized. probably not, but i don’t mind. i understood what i was getting out of writing for them when i did it. which is I think the same case for our bloggers, who get their own benefits from posting on our site, ask to do it, and often yell at me (usually justifiably) when it takes too long for their post to go live.

Likewise, Arianna Huffington compared unpaid bloggers to social media users in a column explaining why she does not pay her writers.

However, the standards of conduct imposed on Huffington Post bloggers are regimented and employee-like compared to what’s expected from social media users. (Full disclosure: I was fired” as an unpaid blogger for the Huffington Post in January 2011 for not meeting such standards, when I used my status as a Huffington Post blogger to help 200 construction workers break into a conference of bankers.)

On Twitter and Facebook, users can post anything they want (as long as it does not violate laws; e.g., threats). Bloggers at the Huffington Post, on the other hand, must have every single post approved by an editor before it is allowed to be published. To state the obvious, Twitter or Facebook do not pre-approve each status update or tweet. If the Huffington Post doesn’t feel that the post by an unpaid blogger meets its standards of journalism, it will not publish the post.

To be even more specific about the standards expected from Huffington Post bloggers: The site does not allow its bloggers to use anonymous sourcing. Likewise, Huffington Post often factchecks posts before they go up. On several occasions when I used to write (again, unpaid) for the site, I received phone calls and emails from editors asking me to provide more details and sourcing in order to verify a statement I had written in a blog post. On Twitter and Facebook, no editors call you up to check the accuracy of your statements; you can simply post whatever you want. 

The Huffington Post, however, goes to great lengths to decide what can be written for the site so that its content appears professional and equal in quality to content written for sites that do pay all of their writers. The columns of paid Huffington Post reporters appear side by side next to many unpaid bloggers— making it difficult for most readers to tell what content is produced by paid writers and unpaid writers. 

Finally, the Huffington Post imposes very strict standards of conduct on its bloggers to protect its reputation as a professional journalistic publication. Andrew Breitbart was demoted as a front-page blogger because of what he said about progressive activist Van Jones in an interview with the Daily Caller. And in my case, as Huffington Post Executive Business Editor Peter Goodman told me upon firing” me, You pulled a stunt and damaged our reputation and that’s why you’re not writing for us anymore.”

So is the Huffington Post a social media site as it likes to claim while defending its policy of not paying writers? Or is the website a professional journalistic entity? Legally speaking, the answer is unclear. But what is clear is that the ambiguity of the employment relationship of Huffington bloggers allows the website to profit off unpaid bloggers’ writing.

The larger trend toward unpaid labor 

In creative industries such as journalism or the arts, workers have always worked for little or nothing in order to gain the exposure needed to further their career. But the use of unpaid work is spreading beyond creative industries as a new generation hunts for jobs in a difficult economy. 

According to Paving the Way Through Paid Internships,” a report by Demos and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) published last year, in 1992, only 9 percent of graduating college students had held an internship. By 2006, 83 percent of graduating college students had held an internship. The EPI estimates that at least 2.5 million students work each year as interns, with anywhere from one-fourth to one-half of all interns working unpaid — often in violation of many state and federal labor laws forbidding such practices.

But it’s not just young workers that are working for free in the hope of eventually gaining a job anymore.

We realized what a big problem this was when we started discovering middle age workers who had been laid off that were working unpaid for six months as a tryout period for a company, while collecting their unemployment benefits in order to get by,” says EPI Vice President Ross Eisenbrey. Workers who remained unemployed for long period of times often face discrimination because employers feel those workers have lost skills; thus many unemployed workers choose to work unpaid for companies in order to gain skills and to make their resumes look better.

Unpaid labor — whether in the form of interns or unpaid Huffington Post bloggers — is an extreme form of another trend in America’s workforce: the shift away from full-time official employees (with benefits) to independent contractors. A few decades ago, nearly all workers were classified as full-time employees, not independent contractors, who are ineligible for healthcare and retirement benefits and denied key rights such as unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, minimum wage and overtime laws, and, most significantly, the right to join a union. Now, the Department of Labor estimates that 30 percent of all companies misclassify employees as independent contractors in order to avoid paying benefits to workers and giving workers these benefits and rights.

While some prominent labor-funded progressives, such as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, American Prospect Executive Editor Robert Kuttner, and several individuals from Campaign for America’s Future have continued to blog at the Huffington Post—in violation of the NWU/TNG picket line — union leaders such as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, USW President Leo Gerard, and UAW President Bob King strongly back the Huffington boycott because they realize the dramatic effect that Arianna Huffington’s labor practices could have on all workers, not just journalists and other writers. 

If we as a labor movement allow the Huffington Post to get away with this – pretty soon we are going to see young kids walking around construction sites working as unpaid apprentices,” said Ironworkers Local 377 member Mike Daly at San Francisco’s Labor Fest, after a panel titled Blogging, Journalism, The Net & Free Labor.”

A divide now exists in many workplaces between employees classified as regular full-time employees with full benefits and rights, and employees doing similar jobs but classified as independent contractors. With the rise of a new generation of young people often forced to work as an unpaid interns in order to gain a job, how long will be it before a similar divide emerges in the workplace between workers who are paid and workers who are deemed unworthy of being paid?

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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