The Young Turks Union Fight Gets Nastier With Charges of Retaliatory Firing, Withholding Raises

Hamilton Nolan March 5, 2020

The union has charged Young Turks boss Cenk Uygur with firing an employee and withholding raises in retaliation for the union drive. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for The Young Turks)

A con­tentious union cam­paign by the staff of the pro­gres­sive news net­work The Young Turks (TYT) is grow­ing even more com­bat­ive. Today, the union filed two sep­a­rate unfair labor prac­tice charges alleg­ing that the com­pa­ny and its CEO, the pop­u­lar lib­er­al media fig­ure Cenk Uygur, with­held wage increas­es and bonus­es from employ­ees as a result of the union dri­ve, and that they fired an employ­ee as retal­i­a­tion for union activ­i­ty — charges that Uygur denies. 

On Feb­ru­ary 12, about 15 TYT employ­ees announced their inten­tion to union­ize with IATSE. They expect­ed to gain vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion from their famous­ly lib­er­al employ­er through a sim­ple check of union cards, but were spurned. The com­pa­ny insist­ed on hold­ing a secret bal­lot elec­tion at work in order to rec­og­nize the union, a tac­tic typ­i­cal­ly con­sid­ered to be anti-union. (Uygur dis­put­ed this, telling In These Times that Vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion means any recog­ni­tion process out­side of an NLRB elec­tion.” But card check is gen­er­al­ly under­stood to be what unions mean by vol­un­tary recognition.”)

In a tense staff meet­ing held the same day, Uygur urged staffers not to union­ize, say­ing a union would be unsus­tain­able giv­en TYT’s per­ilous finan­cial posi­tion. Uygur’s posi­tion on the union has been wide­ly crit­i­cized as hyp­o­crit­i­cal, com­ing from a man who made his name as a cham­pi­on of pro­gres­sive caus­es. TYT bills itself as the largest online news show in the world, with more than 200 mil­lion views per month. 

Uygur, who at the time was run­ning for Con­gress in California’s 25th dis­trict, also sug­gest­ed that the union fight was polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed, since IATSE was endors­ing one of his oppo­nents in the race. On Tues­day, Uygur lost the race, com­ing in fourth with about 5% of the vote.

An employ­ee of TYT involved in the union effort, who asked to remain anony­mous out of fear of retal­i­a­tion, said that the work­ers’ annu­al dis­cre­tionary rais­es — which rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant amount of mon­ey in a work­place where pay is already low — were sched­uled to go into effect at the same time the union dri­ve was announced. Short­ly after­wards, accord­ing to the work­er, employ­ees involved in the union dri­ve were told that they were gonna have to delay our rais­es and bonus­es until the union stuff got sort­ed out.” The work­er said that employ­ees who are not in the pro­posed col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing unit did get their raises. 

One unfair labor prac­tice charge filed at the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board by IATSE today says that TYT is guilty of with­hold­ing pre­de­ter­mined wage increas­es and bonus­es in response to a Union’s demand for vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion.” Uygur said that the com­pa­ny was sim­ply main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo while the union dri­ve was active. Frankly, we can’t win, because we all know that if we gave the rais­es, IATSE would be accus­ing us of brib­ing employ­ees not to sup­port the union,” he said. If IATSE doesn’t object to TYT giv­ing the rais­es, we would be more than hap­py to do so.”

The employ­ee fired today was Jacorey Palmer, a tech­ni­cal direc­tor who occa­sion­al­ly appeared on the show as well. Palmer said that he was the employ­ee who was rep­ri­mand­ed” by Uygur for smil­ing dur­ing the meet­ing when the union was first announced, an inci­dent report­ed by Huff­post. His first day back act­ing as head of the com­pa­ny, after his con­gres­sion­al cam­paign end­ed, he fired me with no clear expla­na­tion,” Palmer said. I have no doubt that this was in con­nec­tion to my cowork­ers and I orga­niz­ing for a voice at work. It was meant not only to remove a per­ceived trou­ble mak­er but also as a warn­ing shot to my cowork­ers. With­out a doubt, this was retaliatory.”

Through­out my time at TYT I had made myself known as some­one unafraid to vocal­ize injus­tices, espe­cial­ly in cas­es for fair treat­ment for my cowork­ers,” he added. I found man­age­ment very abra­sive each time I tried to voice con­cerns my co-work­ers had brought to my atten­tion. Each time I hoped their pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics would gov­ern their response and each time I was wrong.”

Uygur said the com­pa­ny had no knowl­edge regard­ing the employee’s sup­port for the union or lack there­of,” and that the fir­ing was jus­ti­fied. TYT’s prac­tice is to refrain from shar­ing details regard­ing per­son­nel mat­ters. How­ev­er, since IATSE has accused us of wrong­do­ing, we will respond in this case,” Uygur said. There was an employ­ee fired this week for vio­lat­ing the Company’s anti-harass­ment pol­i­cy. TYT’s ongo­ing engage­ment with this employ­ee and dis­ci­pli­nary warn­ings regard­ing his mis­con­duct date back sev­er­al months, pre­dat­ing any com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the union. Recent­ly, we received sev­er­al new com­plaints regard­ing the employee’s behav­ior from that for­mer employee’s col­leagues. The com­plaints were ful­ly inves­ti­gat­ed and the Com­pa­ny took appro­pri­ate action.”

In response, Palmer said, All of the inci­dents they are refer­ring to are inci­dents of me speak­ing up for my cowork­ers about injus­tice in the workplace.”

The uproar over the rais­es and the dis­missal has only added to the lev­el of dis­sat­is­fac­tion inside TYT. Employ­ees are also upset that the com­pa­ny is try­ing to reduce the size of the bar­gain­ing unit. Uygur said the company’s request was rea­son­able and cus­tom­ary,” but the TYT work­er calls the idea of tak­ing any­one out of the pro­posed union a no go for us.” 

The events of this week have only strength­ened the resolve of the employ­ees to win a union. If the com­pa­ny is gonna pun­ish us,” the TYT work­er said, that just under­scores why it’s impor­tant for us to organize.” 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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