Business of News

Leaders of union drive among those laid off at Slate

February 20, 2017

Slate laid off five staffers last week, two of whom were leaders of a unionization effort at the left-leaning news operation. Those affected by the layoffs include politics editor Tommy Craggs, senior editor Rachael Larimore, associate editor Laura Anderson, finance columnist Helaine Olen, and podcast producer Mike Vuolo. Slate also ended its contract with parenthood writer Elissa Strauss.

Alissa Neil, a spokeswoman for Slate, denied the layoffs were targeted: “The layoffs this week were unrelated to any union activity,” she wrote in an email to CJR. “Workers at Slate are of course free to make whatever decisions they want about organizing, and those decisions have not had and will never have any impact on their employment status here.”

Craggs and Anderson were among those leading the union drive. Craggs tells CJR: “I do think the union drive was part of a constellation of things that [Slate Editor in Chief] Julia [Turner] didn’t like about me, but I don’t think I was targeted, no.”

Craggs joined Slate in March 2016, and a few months later he floated the idea of unionizing. Formal meetings took place in the fall. “It was picking up steam,” he tells CJR. “I think we were probably getting close to a vote or a card-check.”

Craggs, who was executive editor of Gawker Media when its newsroom voted to unionize, supported that effort and says he believes in the unionization process on principle. “I was management then, but I was very noisily pro-union and saw what good it did for the people there, saw the stability it brought, and then saw what it did for editorial during that particularly tumultuous period,” he says. “People are very happy to be in a union right now.”

Nine months after its newsroom voted to unionize, a judge found Gawker Media liable for $115 million in damages in a lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan and underwritten by tech billionaire Peter Thiel. Gawker Media subsequently filed for bankruptcy and was sold to Univision. “Not that I saw all that happening to Slate, but I thought you don’t wait for the crisis to fall on your head to do something about it. So partly as a prophylactic measure, but just also in general I think it brings stability,” Craggs says. “It’s a mechanism for forcing submerged issues to the surface, and I think happy workplaces beget happy unions.”

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Last fall, more than 20 editorial staffers of Slate gathered in the New York office of Writers Guild of America East to discuss unionization options. After the meeting, Craggs notified Turner (Slate’s editor in chief) of the organizing effort. He tells CJR he hoped to alleviate concerns among staff members about going behind her back. “I figured, at this point there are enough people involved, and I think it would put a lot of people at ease if they knew that Julia knew,” he says. “It didn’t go over very well.”

Last week’s layoffs came as a shock to Slate staffers, who had previously been told not to expect layoffs, according to current and former Slate journalists who spoke with CJR on condition of anonymity. Those affected had their email and office chat accounts cut off immediately, leaving some remaining journalists feeling demoralized.

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Turner held a newsroom meeting to discuss the news, telling staff that the layoffs were made mainly for financial reasons. But she said the company plans to hire a new politics editor to replace Craggs. One staffer said employees learned who had been laid off by noting who had disappeared from the office Slack channel. Turner was asked if the layoffs were related to the union drive. She denied it was a factor.

The layoffs were first reported by Huffington Post.

It’d be a satisfying irony if Slate management wound up being a more effective union organizer than I ever was.”

Justin Molito, the guild’s director of organizing, declined to comment on whether WGAE is involved in Slate’s unionization drive, but he spoke to CJR about the recent wave of unionization in digital newsrooms. In the past month, staffers at both MTV News and Thrillist have moved to unionize, choosing WGAE as their collective bargaining representative. WGAE also represents The Huffington Post, VICE, Gizmodo Media Group (formerly Gawker Media), Fusion, The Root, ThinkProgress, and Salon.

Thrillist’s vote to unionize last week came days after it was reported that Group Nine Media, Thrillist’s parent company, had laid off 20 staff from its editorial department. “The industry can be precarious, and when companies have all of the power related to decisions, layoffs always seem to be looming,” says Molito. “Without having any collective power and not being organized to push back on that is something that places that are unorganized feel. Certainly we’re feeling that at Thrillist, and at many of the shops where people have decided to organize.”

Some of the goals of the union drives are equitable pay and benefits, protection of editorial freedoms, and transparency in newsrooms.

CJR asked Craggs whether being laid off from Slate has changed how he feels about unionizing. “Not at all,” he says. “This is precisely why you unionize. It’d be a satisfying irony if Slate management wound up being a more effective union organizer than I ever was.”

Shelley Hepworth , formerly a CJR Delacorte Fellow, is Technology Editor at The Conversation in Australia. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.