Unions for thee but not for me
A few months ago Gawker staffers successfully formed an employee union. Why? Because they wanted a union. Yes really, that’s the only reason.
Whether the move spooked other prominent trash click sites or because their own employees were mumbling uniony things is unclear, but both Upworthy and Buzzfeed have discouraged their employees from going the way of Gawker.
Last week, Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti reportedly explained in a staff meeting that, “he doesn’t think unionization is “the right idea” for BuzzFeed,” writes Buzzfeed.
“I think unions have had a positive impact on a lot of places, like if you’re working on an assembly line,” Peretti said at a company meeting. In such cases, “if you’re negotiating with management it can make a huge difference, particularly when labor is more replaceable.”
In contrast, he said BuzzFeed patterns itself after companies like Google and Facebook, which compete for less replaceable talent by offering better compensation and benefits.
“They’re all trying to get the very best talent. That’s how I see BuzzFeed as well,” Peretti said. “We need to provide amazing benefits. We need to provide as much incentive for people to pick BuzzFeed over any other company.”
Peretti said unionized companies typically have an “adversarial” relationship between managers and employees, where lawyers negotiate compensation for workers by looking at compensation at comparable companies. He said this practice might not benefit workers at BuzzFeed.
“I think that actually wouldn’t be very good for employees at BuzzFeed — particularly people who are writers and reporters,” said Peretti, “because the [compensation] for writers and reporters are much less favorable than [compensation] for startup companies and tech companies.”
He also said unions frequently define individual roles and job functions, which could inhibit a “flexible and dynamic company.”
Buzzfeed recently tied the knot with NBC Universal in a $200 million deal.
Also last week, Gawker mocked left-leaning click-bait site extraordinaire Upworthy for their attempts to avoid unionization. In typical Gawker fashion, they cited an anonymous email with supposed insider-info.
Upworthy bet millions of venture capital dollars that progressive values are the ultimate viral content. But after being forsaken by Facebook and facing layoffs, we’re told the site’s left-wing leadership has successfully fought off a staff unionization drive.
Over the weekend, I received the following anonymous message, alleging that Upworthy recently laid off six staffers and derailed an attempt by the site’s employees to form a union (Gawker Media’s editorial employees recently voted to unionize with the Writers Guild of America- East):
While Gawker, Guardian, Salon and Vice have made headlines in the media world by allowing their editorial staffs to unionize, Upworthy the feel-good rarara human rights viral website has not. The staff decided to try to unionize after 6 former Upworthy employees were laid off suddenly on a Sunday over the phone. The cofounders of Upworthy, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, pushed back against the staff that tried to unionize claiming that Upworthy would lose its venture capital money if people tried to unionize.
Upworthy is in big trouble but it’s done a good job of keeping out of the spotlight by saying it’s “shifting its editorial direction.” Fact: After Facebook’s algorithm messed up Upworthy’s monthly uniques, the company could no longer fall back on “We give attention to stuff that matters.” They laid off 6 people without any warning, privately telling them their pageviews weren’t enough while publicly telling the media that the laid-off employees didn’t have the storytelling abilities Upworthy needed. Now the rest of the staff is scared and disillusioned. So they tried to unionize. Upworthy, the media company that says it tries to make the world a better place, said no.
Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser has been part of the left-wing internet vanguard for almost fifteen years. For the same web activist who until June served as board president of MoveOn.org to scuttle a union drive by his own workers in defense of Silicon Valley investors would undermine his image as liberal wunderkind, to say the least. According to a source, Upworthy counts the AFL-CIO among its largest editorial clients.
Even investors in left-leaning media understand what unionization ultimately does to profitability.
Over email, Pariser told me he hadn’t “said no,” as the tipster claimed, but acknowledged that he discouraged the effort because capitalists don’t like unions and things are touch-and-go right now for the site:
No, we didn’t say it wouldn’t be allowed at all — Peter [Koechley] and I told our writers we support their right to form a union, and believe unions are an important force for economic equality, but that doing this now at Upworthy could come at a cost to the company in terms of our ability to raise capital.
Upworthy relied on Facebook for the lion’s share of their traffic. After Facebook changed their feed algorithms to minimize click-bait type content, Upworthy’s traffic plummeted, dropping 48% from December of 2014 to January 2015, reported Gawker.
According to Buzzfeed, no active unionization effort has manifested itself just yet.
While Buzzfeed and Upworthy management continue to praise the utility of unions in some venues, they simply don’t want a union in their own place of business, or as the old political adage goes, “not in my backyard.”
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