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As Labor Day approaches, consider who’s making the news. From essential workers to gig workers and those working from home, the COVID-19 pandemic has put labor issues on journalists’ agendas. At the same time, journalists are increasingly viewing themselves as “workers first” and forming unions to address longstanding issues in their industry. Since 2015, journalists have unionized at more than 80 digital and legacy media outlets, including at BuzzFeed, VICE Canada, Vox, Canadaland and 28 properties owned by the conglomerate Hearst Magazines – from Esquire and Elle to Men’s Health and Harper’s Bazaar. 

Journalists’ unions are nothing new. In the 1930s, newspaper journalists unionized to protect editorial independence and collectively negotiate working conditions. By the 2000s, legacy media unions faced big challenges: traditional newsrooms were being gutted by layoffs, while their digital successors, with their tech start-up feel, seemed to be culturally off-limits to unionization efforts. 

Against that background, it was surprising when staff at (the now defunct) New York-based Gawker announced in the spring of 2015 that they were unionizing. In doing so, they kicked off a wave of unionization in digital media. Since then, thousands of new members have joined labor unions, such as The NewsGuild, the Writers Guild of America, East and the Communication Workers of America Canada. These organizing has not let up amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and in fact, the economic fallout from COVID-19 and the demands for racial justice elevated by protests against anti-Black racism give the media union movement renewed cause. 

To understand how – and why – journalists are unionizing, Nicole Cohen, an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Toronto, and Greig de Peuter, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, interviewed 50 media workers and union staff involved in this enduring organizing push for their book, New Media Unions. They say that they noticed three key themes that have emerged … 

Protection and voice

According to Cohen and de Peuter’s findings, many journalists have organized to improve their livelihoods, including in response to low pay and precarious employment, as unionizing enables media workers to negotiate legally binding collective bargaining agreements with employers. Contracts have raised labor standards, introducing salary minimums, increased benefits and a process for converting freelancers to full-time employees, for example.

Less than two months into the pandemic, 36,000 U.S. news workers had lost their jobs, been temporarily laid off or had their pay cut, according to The New York Times. Although news sites’ traffic has soared as an anxious public has sought information about the health crisis, companies’ ad revenue plunged and many outlets closed. With this in mind, unionizing was (in hindsight) a form of emergency preparedness. Before the pandemic, journalists acted to protect their livelihoods in a volatile industry where closures and cuts were commonplace. Severance packages became a bargaining priority. As union drives continue to launch, the pandemic has not diminished journalists’ resolve to build a safety net.

Beyond that, journalists are unionizing to protect journalism, too. Contracts strengthen divisions between editorial and marketing departments, for example. And as local outlets are bought up by cost-cutting private equity firms, staff are organizing not just to preserve jobs but also local news, whose role as an essential service has been reaffirmed during the pandemic.

Having a formal mechanism to negotiate with management has given many journalists a say in how their employers respond to the pandemic. The L.A. Times Guild proposed pay cuts rather than layoffs, for example, which the Buzzfeed News Union used as a model to save jobs in their own newsroom. 

Diversity and equity

Racial and gender divides have also been an impetus to organize. Journalists we interviewed classified their workplaces on a narrow diversity spectrum, from “pretty white” to “mostly white” to “overwhelmingly white.” Many writers are unionizing to change this composition to better reflect the communities they cover. This includes pushed to implement strategies, including reforming informal recruitment practices (i.e., hiring from editors’ existing networks, for example) that perpetuate the industry’s homogeneity. 

Research and first-person accounts show that women and especially racial minorities journalists are undervalued and in many cases, unable to sustain media careers. As such, many journalists organized for pay equity and have negotiated contracts with salary scales by job title, thereby, helping to close pay gaps. 

Still yet, in addition to lobbying for contract language that addresses discrimination and harassment, new media unions have negotiated the creation of union-management committees, formal channels where workers can call companies on equity, including retention and promotion of minority journalists.

When Black Lives Matter protests intensified this summer, journalists’ struggles for racial justice went public. Journalists at the Los Angeles Times, for example, have pressured management to hire more racialized journalists and used the #BlackatLAT hashtag to document the mistreatment of Black journalists. And after the The New York Times published an op-ed that called for a military response to Black Lives Matter protests, staffers organized a public response, tweeting: “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” It led to the resignation of a senior editor.

Care and solidarity

Finally, the new media union movement has prioritized ethics. Journalists care deeply about the work that they do, and statements announcing union drives declare workers’ commitment to producing journalism for their communities. 

These notions of care and community is at the core of many unionization efforts, as many campaigns emerged from friends in newsrooms discussing working conditions. They expanded as journalists in secure positions learned that colleagues were paid less for doing the same work, or were unable to pay rent or access health care. Organizing involves making deep personal connections as journalists have one-on-one discussions about problems at work and what a union could achieve.

As journalists were laid off during the pandemic, this care translated into union members setting up relief funds. The Florida Times-Union Guild, for example, has raised more than $15,000 for colleagues in need. At the same time, for several journalists we spoke to, union organizing is a way to care for oneself in a job that can take a toll. As one journalist told us: “Organizing has been good for my mental health. A lot of the time, we as journalists look at the state of the world and get very depressed. One of the cures for me has been to stand up for our newsroom and for other newsrooms. It has given me renewed hope in the industry.”

While unionizing will not fix all the problems facing journalism, a union is among journalists’ best collective tools to sustain themselves in times of crisis and beyond.

Nicole Cohen is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Toronto. Greig de Peuter is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.