Defying Their Bosses’ Threats, Journalists at Gothamist, DNAinfo Say “Yes” to a Union

Kate Aronoff April 13, 2017

The two news sites became one recently when Gothamist was acquired by billionaire conservative donor Joe Ricketts. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for Roadside Attractions)

Amid threats from man­age­ment, the recent­ly-merged edi­to­r­i­al staffs of Gothamist and DNAin­fo have cho­sen to union­ize with the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca East.

The two news sites became one recent­ly when Gothamist was acquired by bil­lion­aire con­ser­v­a­tive donor Joe Rick­etts. After oppos­ing Don­ald Trump in the pri­maries, Rick­etts, the founder and for­mer CEO of online bro­ker­age giant TD Amer­i­trade, pledged at least $1 mil­lion to his cam­paign against Hillary Clin­ton. Rick­etts and his wife, Mar­lene, ini­tial­ly sup­port­ed Scott Walk­er in the Repub­li­can pri­ma­ry, donat­ing $5 mil­lion to his Unin­tim­i­dat­ed PAC. He also owns the Chica­go Cubs and found­ed DNAin­fo in 2009. His son, Pete Rick­etts, is the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor of Nebraska.

With the merg­er, Gothamist will now become the offi­cial blog” for DNAin­fo in New York, with Chicago­ist fold­ing into DNAinfo’s Chica­go site, also known for its hyper-local, neigh­bor­hood-by-neigh­bor­hood report­ing. There have been lay­offs recent­ly, and the web­sites are now esti­mat­ed to have around 25 edi­to­r­i­al employ­ees, the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of whom opt­ed to join the union, accord­ing to a DNAin­fo employ­ee who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymi­ty, want­i­ng to avoid any poten­tial retal­i­a­tion from management.

We had more than 90 per­cent sup­port in 24 hours” of dis­trib­ut­ing union autho­riza­tion cards, that employ­ee said. The only per­son who didn’t sign with­in 12 hours forgot.”

The top-down nature of the lay­offs, he said, spurred enthu­si­asm for the union dri­ve, which had been in the works at both Gothamist and DNAin­fo before the two com­pa­nies combined.

Every new devel­op­ment was a sur­prise,” the DNAin­fo employ­ee told In These Times. It real­ly under­scored how lit­tle voice we had. There was a feel­ing amongst us and cer­tain­ly amongst our pals at Gothamist that we need to have a seat at the table.”

In an email leaked this week, Dan Swartz, DNAinfo’s chief oper­at­ing offi­cer, made a thin­ly veiled threat to his staff: Would a union be the final straw that caused the busi­ness to be closed? I don’t know.”

Low­ell Peter­son, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca East, was weary to make too much of what he sees as stan­dard anti-union lines from man­age­ment. It’s a very sol­id unit,” Peter­son told In These Times, If the busi­ness is a viable busi­ness they will not shut it down just because peo­ple exer­cise their rights.”

We do a lot of orga­niz­ing,” Peter­son said. That kind of scare tac­tic is pret­ty com­mon, and not effective.”

Employ­ees hope that Rick­etts will choose to vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize the union, rather than call for a Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board elec­tion or ignore the request.

The DNAin­fo and Gothamist staffs join sev­er­al oth­er dig­i­tal news out­lets in the Writ­ers Guild shop, includ­ing those at The Inter­cept, VICE, Fusion and MTV News. Peter­son con­tends that unions will only get more impor­tant in the age of Trump, when press free­doms could become sub­ject to increas­ing scrutiny.

In our col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments we have lan­guage pro­tect­ing edi­to­r­i­al inde­pen­dence,” he said. Beyond con­tracts, Peter­son added, Peo­ple who are fac­ing chal­lenges from the gov­ern­ment or from their employ­ers are stronger when they’re united.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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