The media giant is one of many digital newsrooms with workers organizing to protect their jobs

Digital media organizations aren’t easy places to work in — very long hours, unexpected layoffs and consistently inconsistent policies have led workers at many online media outlets across Canada and the United States to unionize.

Though no publication is immune to these issues in today’s news climate, digital-first news organizations have taken a particularly hard hit in the first few months of 2019.

According to the Cut, roughly 2,100 media workers in the United States lost their jobs in the first month of this year. Verizon, the parent company of HuffPost, AOL and Yahoo News, cut seven per cent of their workforce, translating to roughly 800 media jobs, and Gannett —  the largest newspaper chain in the United States — cut dozens of newspaper jobs across the country.

As a response to this turbulence within the industry, an increasing number of journalists at digital news outlets turned to unionization in order to protect their jobs and establish workers’ rights. Journalists at BuzzFeed News were among the latest  to take that decision, announcing on Feb. 12 that their newsroom teams in Canada, the United States and Germany would be joining unions.

On March 26, the Canadian Media Guild was certified to represent the six staff at BuzzFeed Canada’s Toronto newsroom. The team had its initial bargaining meeting with management on June 11 and they are working to set future dates, BuzzFeed’s breaking news reporter Jane Lytvynenko told J-Source.

“We got the lay of the land and laid out some of the things we’re looking for,” she said. “From our end, management seems to be very invested in coming to an agreement with us, so I would say meeting one went well.”

However, other BuzzFeed newsrooms have not fared as well so far.

According to tweets posted April 3 by BuzzFeed News employees in the United States, they have run into a number of difficulties, as company executives are reportedly engaged in “clear union-busting” by refusing to attend negotiation meetings.

“The main issue: BuzzFeed has refused to recognize an editorial unit, and only wants to recognize an extremely restrictive list of titles,” read the tweet. “This would let them easily exclude people from our union and would inhibit flexibility in our jobs.”

In an emailed statement posted on Twitter, it said that newsroom recognition as an editorial unit is an industry standard in print and digital news outlets. Also, since BuzzFeed employees’ internal and external titles are “often inconsistent,” not having editorial unit recognition will allow management to exclude people by changing and adding new titles.

The April 3 meeting was supposed to be the team’s second one with management, with the first one being on March 21. According to the email, the meeting was cancelled because the company believed the news team “no longer intended to operate within the framework” discussed at their initial meeting.

It has been more than 120 days since BuzzFeed workers first announced their push, and management has yet to fully recognize the union.

The Canadian team was able to unionize much faster because they are a much smaller team than the one in the United States, said Lytvynenko.

Canada also has stronger labour laws, and according to a report by the Fraser Institute, Canada generally has a higher unionization rate than the United States. One of the key labour law differences is that U.S. employers are typically able to terminate employees “at will,” while Canadian employers must provide reasonable notice or pay in lieu of notice, unless there is a legal justification. In addition, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes the right to unionize and collectively bargain, while in the U.S. Bill of Rights, the “freedom of association” is much more limited.

“Right now, we’re trying to support them in any way we can, and watching to see how management reacts,” Lytvynenko said. “We are monitoring this closely because we’re wondering whether the attitude management has in the U.S. will spill over to our own bargaining.”

A long-term investment

However, despite all the buzz around the BuzzFeed unionization, Nicole Cohen — an assistant professor and labour researcher at the Institute of Communication, Culture and Information and Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga — said unionization in the journalism industry is nothing new.

Cohen said unionization in the digital sector has been going on since 2015, and prior to that, several stand-alone websites were unionizing as well. The Canadian and American journalism sector is heavily unionized, and has been collectively bargaining for their rights at work since the 1930s.

On an individual basis, Cohen said, workers in all sectors do not have a lot of power when it comes to negotiating with management about their working conditions. Historically, coming together and collectively demanding to have a voice in the workplace has allowed workers to gain some control over their working conditions and allowed them to advocate for their own interests.

“Journalists are the same as all other workers,” said Cohen. “In an industry that is in particular flux at the moment, there are some specific issues.”

Much of Cohen’s research has been about labour and organizing in the media and cultural industries, media work and journalism. Along with her research partner Greig de Peuter, they have interviewed 44 union organizers and people who have organized their newsrooms in Canada and the United States.

“There’s lines of continuity through all forms of journalism, but there’s a whole range of issues that digital workers have told us,” said Cohen. “A lot of these journalists thought these places were not being run properly, and wanted some structures and transparencies in place.”

Many of the issues within digital workplaces stem from the fact that a lot of them are relatively young and grew very quickly, especially around 2015 and 2016, when many of these companies started to gain traction.

“Suddenly, they went from small, sort of scrappy workplaces, to huge workplaces with massive offices and huge investments of venture capital,” said Cohen. “We can’t forget that in this industry, though there’s claims of crisis and all of these layoffs, there’s been a lot of money pouring into these sites, so they’ve grown really fast.”

What Cohen and de Peuter have found confirms what a lot of the workers at BuzzFeed are currently trying to fight against — a lack of structure and organization and a lack of policies and transparency around existing policies.

“People would get hired at very different job titles even though they did the same work, and their pay would be based on who hired you basically, kind of at the whim of management,” said Cohen. “There were no clear paths to promotion, or any rules around firing, other than basic labour laws.”

Cohen also said many of these digital newsrooms are often staffed by younger journalists who are at the beginning of their careers, and are frequently quite poorly paid. With such low salaries, most people cannot afford to live in big cities like Toronto or New York, where many of these companies are located.

On top of that, digital media workers frequently work very long hours that more often than not, are not properly compensated or recognized. In both Canada and the United States, basic workplace protections are also consistently disregarded, said Cohen, including a lack of health benefits, vacation days and parental leave.

“There have been a few interesting cases where intellectual property and nondisclosure agreements have been something journalists want to negotiate because digital spaces introduce all these kinds of strange employment policies,” said Cohen, referring specifically to Vice, which has a document that employees have to sign about being comfortable with their “non-traditional environment.”

The lack of equity within these newsrooms is also an issue, which includes a lack of diverse representation, as well as wage gaps.

“Women and people of colour have been paid way less than their male counterparts,” said Cohen. “We only found that out because in the process of unionizing, the management has to hand over this information, so you can collectively bargain.”

However, history has shown that unions work. Specifically in relation to journalism, Cohen believes that in order for this industry to flourish, journalists should have a certain degree of autonomy, and be guided by their own ethics and professional obligations, instead of bowing to management or advertising pressure. Though it’s impossible to predict the future, it’s evident that in this turbulent industry, unions are not going away.

“Unionized workplaces are more equitable, people get paid more fairly, there’s more diverse racial and gender representations,” said Cohen. “It’s a long-term investment by journalists. It’s not just about winning union recognition and negotiating a collective agreement, but long-term creating a space for journalists to have some autonomy and voice in the workplace.”

“Future proofing”

BuzzFeed’s unionization push came after the international media giant laid off 15 per cent of its workforce across the board, leaving approximately 220 people without a job. According to a BuzzFeed News Canada statement, they were prompted to unionize because the company lacked “uniform severance and communication standards” throughout the different branches.

“We break some of the biggest stories in news, politics, tech, science and entertainment; publish incisive analysis of our culture; and diagnose what makes the internet tick,” said a Feb. 12 statement by the U.S. BuzzFeed News employees. “But it’s not all fun and memes. Our staff has been organizing for several months, and we have legitimate grievances about unfair pay disparities, mismanaged pivots and layoffs, weak benefits, skyrocketing health insurance costs, diversity and more.”

Nevertheless, BuzzFeed remains a strong media outlet with a loyal following on a number of social media outlets. The outlet has broken a number of important stories, such as the 2016 investigation into the Macedonian teenagers that were spreading “sensationalist” lies that supported Donald Trump, a story done by BuzzFeed News Canada. A number of their articles were 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalists for international reporting, including Poison in the System, a 2017 investigation that found “explosive evidence of a suspected Kremlin assassination plot.”

In Canada, it is the second digital media organization to unionize, with Vice Canada joining the Canadian Media Guild in 2016. In the United States, Huffington Post, the New Yorker and Vox are just some of the media outlets that have unionized in recent years. Vox has been negotiating with management for over 14 months, and reached a tentative agreement on June 7, after 29 straight hours of final negotiations.

Lytvynenko was one of the primary people that rallied the BuzzFeed News Canada office to unionize, along with fellow reporter Lauren Strapagiel.

“I think that we’ve seen the industry slowly decline over the last few years, and if the industry declines, it sort of becomes clear that media workers, including contract media workers and even permanent employees, lack protections when it comes to their jobs,” said Lytvynenko.

She views unionizing as a form of “future proofing” workers, so that when and if layoffs come, employees will be treated fairly and equally across the board. “It’s not necessarily an adversarial exercise,” said Lytvynenko. “The industry has been in a free fall for so long, it just makes sense for workers to have a voice.”

One of the issues they want to address in their negotiations is the rights of contract worker, often called “permalancers.” People in such positions rarely get the same rights as permanent workers, especially when it comes to things like job security and benefits, said Lytvynenko. “This is already an industry in such huge flux that adding more precarity to jobs is really not the way to go, as we see it.”  

Benefits are also important for the BuzzFeed Canada team, and much of their bargaining will include putting their existing benefits in writing so that they cannot be taken away. Mental health support and benefits are particularly important to them, due to the stressful nature of their jobs.

Lytvynenko encouraged other media workers to look into unionization. Many younger workers, herself included, often have outdated ideas of what being in a union entails, but what really helped Lytvynenko and the rest of the BuzzFeed News Canada team decide to unionize was the notion that the union is really what they make it.

“I think that a lot of old stereotypes are still being perpetuated, but they’re not necessarily true,” she said. “That’s something we need to be very mindful of because from our perspective, unionization is a good thing — it gives us power, it creates an ease of communication with the employer and it really solidifies what we really love about our jobs.”