How a union could change Gawker’s company culture

Liz Spayd, CJR editor: Employees at Gawker Media voted overwhelmingly to join the Writers Guild of America, East. It makes this one of the first* digital-only news outlet to formally organize its workforce. What’s your sense of how a union might change the culture there? And what should employees expect?

Jill: I think this is going to be fascinating to watch. There’s been some tension among colleagues in the lead-up to the vote, and that tension may linger, even though only 25 percent of the vote came in as “no.” Some just don’t like unions, others questioned the organizing process. But the message from the final vote is clear: Even in a place where people enjoy coming to work (as many at Gawker say they do), things can be better, especially in today’s uncertain media economy.

So now the real fun begins: negotiating a contract that serves the majority of the employees’ best interests and is workable to management. But they have to be realistic about what they’re after.

(I say this as someone who’s been on both sides of the bargaining table in my career. I still think my bosses punished me for being the union steward by promoting me to management.)

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Unions don’t turn workplaces into democracies. Employees don’t get to vote on every facet of their wages, hours, and working conditions. But they get more predictability on things that matter.

This is a great opportunity for Gawker staffers to bring a contemporary approach to a work agreement, different from the old school.

Job security and seniority: In digital media’s free-agent culture, job guarantees and “last-hired, first fired” approaches aren’t the priority they were in legacy newsroom contracts. But severance pay is. The horror stories of cold-blooded staff layoffs (while execs collect bonuses) lead people to want better compensation for their pain.

Wages and benefits: Some of Gawker’s union proponents are interested in parity and transparency. Realistically, the contract will very likely equalize some salaries, for better and worse. People on the low end of the scale may be elevated but the money comes from somewhere–and that’s usually the dollars used as incentives for the top performers. The negotiating team should use wages/benefits as an opportunity to really listen to their colleagues about what’s important to them–especially the original naysayers. What does fair compensation for all really look like? How is performance measured and rewarded?

More openness about compensation: I suspect the best they’ll get is semi-transparency. Media labor agreements are more likely to set floors for compensation than both floors and ceilings. Even union members like to leave management some discretion to add rewards for high achievement. The contract may provide more clarity on how that happens, but it’s unlikely that having a union means everyone will know the full range of everyone else’s deal.

Stuff that ticks us off: Here’s where bad managers cause problems for companies. Late or erratic scheduling, screwy vacation approval processes, mysterious allocation of technology and tools, pressure to cut ethical corners, unclear policies for expense reimbursement (or late pay), and any sort of truly hostile treatment of people can end up as potential bargaining table issues. That’s the sad part. They don’t have to get there if managers are doing right by staff in the first place. As my general manager once said to me, “Unions weren’t formed because managers treated employees too WELL.”

Liz: A second part to the subject. If unions start to take hold in other digital newsrooms, how might this impact what we think of as the more freewheeling, fast-paced tempo of these places? Could a layer of rules for hiring, firing, wage brackets, etc. harness their ambitions, or be blamed for that by management?

Jill: Call me an optimist, but I think collective bargaining and a freewheeling and fast-paced culture can co-exist. We know that people can build digital newsrooms from scratch, with streamlined processes for production and publication. So why not apply that same disruptive mindset and vigor to creating contemporary labor/management compacts that improve the work environment while still keeping things creative and flexible?

Here’s another reality check: If the union’s demands are unworkable and Nick Denton blows them off, what’s the recourse–a strike? I doubt anyone sees wisdom in that. It’s all the more reason to make this contract negotiation a model for a new media mentality/reality at the bargaining table.

So, Gawker unionistas, we’ll be watching you. Do this right!

* Editor’s note: This was updated to clarify that Gawker was one of the first digital sites to unionize, not the first.

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Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.