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State of the Unions

Arguments pitting white-collar against blue-collar unions are full of holes

In a piece for The Atlantic last week, reporter Alana Semuels muses about why a series of efforts to unionize media outlets have been successful, while organizers of blue-collar union drives have faced an uphill battle, with a handful of high-profile defeats.

The state of organized labor across different sectors is worth examining, of course, but the conclusions Semuels provides and her approach to the question—painting workers organizing for decent standards in the workplace as entitled millennials, and eschewing important local context—fall short by a mile.

Since the recession, Semuels reminds us, more than half of the 12 million jobs that have appeared have gone to workers with bachelor’s degrees, while jobs for blue-collar workers have steadily declined, perhaps giving those lucky job-havers a greater sense of security than their union-curious counterparts in blue-collar fields. But the white-collar union efforts Semuel explores are almost exclusively in journalism, an industry that has been losing jobs at an alarming rate. Between 2001 and 2017, more than half of newspaper jobs vanished into thin air, according to a study released last year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It is also true that many of the digital journalism outlets that have unionized in recent years did not exist in 2001; but even those shops have been subject to fits of stomach-churning turbulence and repeated layoffs. The industry is hardly an example of a booming job market. When working with the assumption that the white-collar workers who have won union recognition in the past year feel secure in their jobs, journalism is a terrible case study.

When it comes to unions, the liberal façade of a publication matters little to the bean counters at the top.

Semuels attributes successful unionizing efforts at digital media shops in cities like New York and Los Angeles in part to the more liberal attitudes of workers and the liberal pretensions of their employers, but ignores the fact that several recent efforts at liberal-leaning outlets, including Slate, Vox Media, Thrillist, and the Los Angeles Times, involved heavy-handed anti-union tactics by management, including anti-union meetings that were compulsory at some outlets, a refusal to recognize supermajorities of employees signing union cards, and the huge expense of hiring anti-union law firms in an attempt to hobble organizing efforts. When it comes to unions, the liberal façade of a publication matters little to the bean counters at the top.

Throughout the piece, Semuels and the people she spoke with provide different reasons for a handful of successful union efforts at places like Slate, Vox Media, and the L.A. Times: first it’s because so-called white-collar workers feel secure in their jobs and assume they can get a new job quickly; next it’s because millennials (apparently all the union workers at media outlets are millennials) support unions; finally, and perhaps most insultingly, according to City University of New York professor Ruth Milkman, it’s because millennial workers have been raised to expect the world “handed to them on a silver platter.”

The claim that journalists seeking union representation do not face threats is laughable. At Fusion (now known as Splinter), a round of steep newsroom cuts came just after editorial workers voted in favor of union representation; and at other shops higher-ups have slashed staff at the behest of the snake-oil salesmen of the “pivot-to-video” movement.

Nowhere though, have the consequences played out as starkly as at DNAinfo and Gothamist, where I was a reporter and a member of the organizing committee, in our bid to join the Writers Guild of America, East.

Starting in early 2017 with the firing of several beloved top managers, and the subsequent merger with Gothamist under the leadership of a pair of clueless new executives, the company was suffering at the highest level from a profound case of the editorial doldrums that, despite the best efforts of dedicated and creative mid-level managers and the tireless work of reporters, left the on-the-ground staff feeling at times pressured to conform to a new and unclear editorial standard, and at other times orphaned and expected to plod forward alone.

Semuels and the experts she quoted dismiss this fear among so-called white-collar workers, who, they assure us, have less to fear from management. Even in a worst-case scenario of mass layoffs, she tells us, these workers (such as those eleven staffers at The Oregonian who lost their jobs yesterday) have an easier time finding a new position. University of California Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken brushed off the fears of white-collar seekers of union protections with the assurance that we could find these fabled jobs “in two days.”

Surely we must be talking about different industries.

In the three months since billionaire DNAinfo founder Joe Ricketts summarily fired more than one hundred employees nationwide because of a union vote by twenty-five workers in New York (out of a total of twenty-seven workers eligible for the New York bargaining unit), a majority of the editorial workers continue to look for full-time jobs with benefits, all while hustling for freelance work in the same crowded pool. (This includes everyone in the header image The Atlantic used for the piece.)

Semuels writes that former DNAinfo and Gothamist employees who were unceremoniously fired in November, such as my former coworker Scott Heins who is quoted in the piece, “landed on [their] feet” with freelance gigs. As a freelancer, and a victim of Ricketts’s purge, I’m not so sure.

Not only is it hopelessly naive to assume that journalists feel secure enough in their jobs to unionize, the argument that pro-union journalists, armed with a sense of entitlement and industrial security, are willing to play a nihilistic game of chicken with their bosses also underestimates the commitment they have to their current job.

For me, and for many of my colleagues, a vote to join the union came out of a deep love for the work DNAinfo and Gothamist were doing, and a sense of urgency in righting a foundering ship. Websites like DNAinfo, which did one-of-a-kind local beat reporting in the city, and Gothamist, which drew a loyal following with the smart and irreverent writing of its staff, are increasingly rare, and their destruction leaves a void that will be tough to fill any time soon. We weren’t trying to have a staring contest with Ricketts; we were trying to make sure the sites continued to provide that coverage, as Heins noted.

“Specifically at DNAinfo and Gothamist, we worked somewhere that was unique and special,” Heins said. “We unionized because we wanted to protect and sustain that, not because we thought there was an infinite supply of jobs should we be fired.”

None of us asked for the world on a silver platter.

Of course we also knew that we were swimming with sharks. The fear of losing our jobs was a constant, and it was continually reinforced by veiled threats, first in an email from the chief operating executive Dan Swartz, who mused that a union might be the “final straw” for Ricketts, and later from Gothamist cofounder Jake Dobkin, whose main interaction with his employees in the month after the merger was quietly but persistently assuring us that Ricketts would pull the plug in the event of a successful union drive.

The merger of DNAinfo and Gothamist could have ranked as a top-notch buddy-cop caper had there been a plan on how to work together, complementing one another’s distinct styles and tag-teaming the city’s local news beat. But from the start, it became abundantly clear that Ricketts and his new executives, Gothamist cofounders Dobkin and Jen Chung, had given little thought as to how the two sites would work side by side. Weeks went by without an all-hands staff meeting—unless you count two anti-union lectures held separately in April for DNAinfo and Gothamist employees—and when a meeting was finally held in May, few answers were forthcoming about how the sites would move forward together.

Anyone who has fought for basic worker protections at a news outlet knows that the argument put forward by Semuels and Milkman that union efforts at digital media shops stem from a millennial sense of entitlement is an insult to reporters who have worked hard to  get and stay where they are, as well as a frustrating continuation of the idea that “millennial” refers only to college-educated, privileged young people.

Speaking to the New York Times in the wake of our vote to unionize, my former colleague Katie Honan laid out clearly why journalists are increasingly turning to unions: in an industry that is collapsing around us, we just want to be able to do our jobs, pay our bills, and for those with families, put food on the table.

“We just want to have an ability to negotiate things, and not necessarily money. If this is the future of journalism, it should be a career for people, not a postcollege hobby,” Honan said at the time.

Semuels turns frequently to individual sentiment to explain the success or failure of union drives, but as a member of the organizing committee that worked to unionize DNAinfo and Gothamist, I found that my colleagues’ general opinions about labor unions had little correlation with support or opposition to our union. Among the original members of the organizing committee, there was at least one coworker who expressed a personal suspicion of unions, while other colleagues spoke of previous negative experiences at unionized shops. What mattered to me, and what mattered to most of my coworkers, was the ability to collectively bargain a contract and have a voice in the direction of the company.

By no means were we a group of dedicated union agitators, but we voted twenty-five to two in favor of joining the Writers Guild, despite threats and cajoling from upper management.

A week after the vote, Ricketts fired 115 employees with a shrug of his shoulders.

The Atlantic piece doesn’t get any clearer as Semuels explores the forces that thwarted a handful of recent unsuccessful union drives at manufacturing plants in Mississippi and Tennessee, where Semuels attributes the failures to “anti-union attitudes” in those states without touching on broader structural and political forces at play. Semuels’s thesis, that anti-union sentiment coupled with fear of job-loss among workers in the South is to blame for unsuccessful union drives, yet again puts too much emphasis on individual “attitudes” and “opinions.”

Semuels’s piece also curiously leaves out that union membership is lower across all sectors in many states that have so-called “right-to-work” laws, the cleverly named statutes that force unions to offer protections to workers at union shops whether or not those workers are dues-paying members. Portrayed by their proponents as a measure to protect workers from being forced to join unions, these laws have a range of consequences that weaken organized labor in the workplace by over-extending unions and cutting their potential revenue. In a 2017 study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, researchers found that workers in Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin—three Midwestern right-to-work states—earn 8 percent less than counterparts in Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota, which do not have right-to-work laws. Union membership in those right-to-work states is also 2.2 percentage points lower than in the states without right-to work. This leads to a weaker lobbying presence by unions, and helps secure the election of more employer-friendly politicians.

In a study published in January by Boston University assistant professor James Feigenbaum, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Vanessa Williamson comparing neighboring counties across state lines in right-to-work and non-right-to-work states, the authors found a strong correlation between the passing of right-to-work laws and a decline in the number of local elected officials from working-class backgrounds, a reduction in the passage of liberal state policies, and an overall decline in union participation in local politics. In turn, the authors found, unions are forced to reallocate scarce resources, leaving them less able to launch new fights in areas like the South where winning a major union fight can take years and countless dollars and hours of organizing.

The structural and historical forces that kept union membership low had a drastic effect on a fight by the United Auto Workers to organize a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, one of the failed union drives Semuels cites, according to an activist familiar with the campaign. Worker-activists at the plant fought for nearly a decade to organize, but in the end, employees voted against joining a union by 60 percent.

To be sure, some workers may have been so staunchly anti-union that they would never vote yes. But there are also key structural hurdles in place in Mississippi that may have contributed to the vote’s failure, including a sixty-three-year-old right-to-work law and a history of violent repression against organized labor that has left unions in the state weak and membership low.

Workers were also persistently menaced with anti-union pressure from top Nissan officials, who interrogated individual employees about their union support and repeatedly threatened that the plant would be shut down if workers voted to join the union, according to a complaint filed by the NLRB against Nissan after UAW filed charges with the board.

In the final days before the election, employers set up a tent outside the factory and workers leaving each shift were forced to listen to executives hint at the potential pitfalls of joining a union, according to the New York Times.

(Workers also may have been turned off by a poorly timed scandal in which a Detroit UAW official was busted for skimming millions of dollars from a union training facility.)

But to chalk up the loss to individual attitudes is “horseshit,” said the activist, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about the campaign.

“The workers who were union activists were some of the bravest, most incredible people I’ve ever worked with,” said the organizer. “You can’t understand the erosion of worker power in the South without understanding that it was never really consolidated there, and that the backlash began there way before it did elsewhere and really provided the template for busting unions in other regions.”

If there’s a useful lesson to learn from unsuccessful union efforts in the South, it is more instructive to look at the structural forces at play than to lay the blame at individual anti-union sentiment among workers at those plants. It is not an accident that unions are weak in the American South. In the decades in which unions were still consolidating power in the north and midwest, the local political class was violently suppressing union activity, tarring and feathering union activists as communist agitators and race-mixing carpetbaggers, and driving union organizers out of town or, in some cases, murdering them.

The national Democratic Party, meanwhile, which was forging ties with organized labor elsewhere, relied on a coalition with Southern Dixiecrats, many of whom were active in suppressing organized labor in the South.

The result is a region where unions never gained the political or economic foothold they did elsewhere, leading to the steep uphill battle of current-day union efforts in the South, including those at the Nissan plant.

A similar story played out in Tennessee, where workers at a Volkswagen plant voted against unionizing, after employees were inundated with anti-union messages from local politicians who warned that a successful union effort might lead to the state losing a slew of jobs, according to the Times.

Media workers in states like New York have also been subject to anti-union messages from employers—believe me—but the outside influence and scaremongering of anti-union politicians has been absent. And the historical and structural forces that have kept union membership low in Tennessee and Mississippi did not exist for the vast majority of the so-called white-collar workers Semuels cites, most of whom are located in states with slightly stronger worker protections and a higher current and historical rate of union membership.

Any argument that rests more on the thoughts and feelings of workers than on the massive power imbalance gifted to employers is going to fail to explain the situation.

Anti-union campaigns, whether legal, semi-legal, or downright illegal, do not take place in a vacuum. Employers in the United States are blessed by weak labor laws, and even in the case that they illegally retaliate against workers, penalties are wrist-slappingly light and lawsuits against deep-pocketed employers can be prohibitively expensive for unions to pursue. Any argument that rests more on the thoughts and feelings of workers than on the massive power imbalance gifted to employers is going to fail to explain the situation.

Workers in the South, and workers everywhere else, vote not as a flock of conservative sheep brainwashed by anti-union propaganda, but as rational actors who need to see the potential material benefits of joining a union if they’re going to overcome the 24/7 fearmongering from company officials and local politicians, the union activist familiar with the Nissan campaign told me.

“It’s such a mischaracterization of Southern workers to act as though the reason they don’t have unions is because of how they feel,” the activist said. “The reason they don’t have unions is because of histories of racial division that have prevented solidarity, and because of an employer class that has brought down the most repressive, violent tactics imaginable.”

In Mississippi, where the UAW lost its effort at the Nissan plant, the percentage of the workforce with membership in a union stands at just 5.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Tennessee, where the Volkswagen union drive fell short, it’s at 5.7 percent. That low percentage, which translates to fewer people who know anyone who’s ever been in a union, has real consequences for organizers trying to convince workers that a union will bring better conditions, especially in a blizzard of threats from company honchos and local politicos about the potentially dire consequences of a successful union vote.

People who know people in unions tend to see the material benefits, according to the activist. For those who don’t, the potential benefits are more ephemeral, and it’s a steeper climb for organizers and worker-activists to bring them into the fold.

“Many people in the South just don’t have that connection to a union, that lived experience,” he said. “Social context matters enormously. It’s essential to helping people forge their own understanding of what being in a union is.”

Between right-to-work laws, a history of violent backlash, and overall lower union membership in the Southern states in which the campaigns cited by Semuels took place, numerous factors converged to make organizing there that much more difficult. In New York, where the majority of the successful efforts The Atlantic cites took place, union membership stands at 23.8 percent, the highest in the country. The stark differences between the two will have to be addressed by unions wanting to successfully organize in Southern states.

But Semuels’s individualist argument about anti-union sentiment ignores the systemic forces at play, and nothing in last week’s piece tells us why we should attribute the different results to the color of the workers’ collars.