The Fight Is Never Over

A tumultuous week in the digital media labor movement is a reminder that the struggle for basic workers' rights is eternal.

On Monday, members of the New Yorker Union and their supporters gathered on a public Zoom call. The meeting had originally been planned as a protest. Instead, it was a celebration. After a protracted, very public battle with management, workers had secured a clause enshrining “just cause” labor protections in their upcoming collective bargaining agreement.

“Management tried to sow doubt among our leadership, across our union, but our members remained united and stood next to each other in this time of uncertainty,” said Natalie Meade, a fact-checker and writer for the New Yorker.

The news comes a full two years after the New Yorker Union was first formed and achieved recognition by management, and it’s only one step, albeit a big one, in the union’s larger push for a full collective bargaining agreement. For those unfamiliar with the term, “just cause” helps prevent workers from being unfairly disciplined or fired. In workplaces with so-called “at-will” employment, bosses can terminate workers for any reason or no reason at all, on a whim. Just cause provisions force employers to adhere to a standardized set of criteria and to follow a particular procedure before they are able to dismiss or discipline workers for reasons other than (ostensibly) economic ones. Most importantly, they have to show “cause”—to prove that there is a justifiable reason for letting someone go.

Just cause is not a silver bullet—a determined and unscrupulous employer is still a danger no matter what the language in a contract might say—but it is a crucial added layer of defense for workers. It ensures a level of due process and is a means to achieve equity in the workplace and greater empowerment for workers. It’s an astoundingly simple—but profound, and far too uncommon—protection for employees whose livelihoods, and lives, are subject to the whims of corporate overlords. It’s also, some argue, good for business

The New Yorker Union is part of the broader unionization of digital media (a movement the magazine itself has covered) in which the concept of just cause is a frequent cornerstone. Many of the contracts signed by industry peers over the last several years have included just cause. (Almost all Discourse Blog staffers are members of the Writers Guild of America East, and some helped bargain the current G/O Media collective bargaining agreement, which contains just cause provisions. I am also a member of the VICE union, which is affiliated with the WGAE.)

Even so, New Yorker management resisted the clause, reportedly claiming that it posed an “existential threat” to the magazine. That’s an especially incendiary claim in a year when parent company Condé Nast has faced public claims of institutional racism and failed to prevent the absolutely spectacular collapse of the blockbuster Bon Appétit video channel following reports of staff exploitation and pay disparity. 

If ever there was a time for Condé Nast management to look within itself and—if nothing else, for sheer PR optics!—give up at-will employment, it would have been this year. And still, it took an enormous, and very public escalation tactic to make it happen. In solidarity with the union and its push for #JustCauseNoExceptions, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez withdrew from the New Yorker Festival, a tentpole event for the brand where they were scheduled to appear as part of a talk on progressivism. The action was announced a week ahead of the festival, but negotiations went down to the very last minute: the union announced the news that they’d finally reached an agreement less than an hour before their digital picket line was set to begin.

While many in digital media (and beyond) rightfully rejoiced at the achievement, the broader celebration was short-lived. Days after the New Yorker Union won just cause, news broke that the California Sunday Magazine and Pop-Up Magazine had been decimated after Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective pulled funding from the publications—leading to layoffs and the total termination of California Sunday

Following the news, the Pop-Up staff, which just unionized this year (what a coincidence!!!), wrote in a statement to management: “We believe your actions violated legal and moral obligations, and we’re sending this note to be clear about the implications of those violations on the team you care about … You had a legal obligation to bargain the method and scope of these cuts with the union in advance. Instead, members of our unit were contacted individually with the news that their termination and end dates had already been decided.”

Jobs, who is the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs and who has a net worth of $31.6 billion, told CNet last year that she acquired the publications in part because of concern for our democracy (it’s a sentiment she’s expressed before) and was championed in the New York Times years ago as a potential savior of *checks notes* “storytelling”???? Jobs is also a majority stakeholder in The Atlantic, which cut 17 percent of its workforce earlier this year. Meanwhile, her net worth is reportedly up $5 billion in 2020. I wonder what happened in the last 12 months to give her such confidence in our republic.  

There’s a lot more I could say here, but I think Aaron Edwards, a journalist who was laid off from Pop-Up Magazine, summed it up best:

This is exactly why the New Yorker Union spent years fighting for just cause. It took buttons, online campaigns, multiple work stoppages, and finally, the power of two high-profile progressive politicians to make it happen. It’s almost like escalation works! But it’s also not nearly enough—especially in a year when workers have faced a barrage of contempt from both the government and the very companies that employ them. Amazon is spying on its workers, Instacart workers have been pushed to the brink, farmers are overwhelmed and at risk. In California, historically evil rideshare and food delivery companies are keepin’ on keepin’ on by giving boatloads of money to both the GOP and groups like the NAACP in an effort to pass legislation that will enable them to keep screwing workers who are fighting for the simple right to be classified as employees. The tech world is being hit with layoffs and unionizing, Shipt shoppers are organizing, teachers and countless others have gone on strike. Gravediggers are unionizing, Greenpeace has unionized, sex workers are unionizing, and all the while, union-busters are everywhere—from Kickstarter to a dang vegan meat company (it’s always the holier-than-thou ones, ain’t it?). 

The bad boss behavior from Jeff Bezos alone this year is a category unto itself, but I’m sure you’ve also heard that billionaires on the whole have continued to get richer and richer during the pandemic. Meanwhile laborers across the country are asking for the bare minimum in safety protections, working themselves to death in increasingly thankless and hostile conditions, and facing job insecurity like never before. The rent is still due, and for many, a single stimulus check (if they ever got it) wasn’t enough. For others, the unemployment benefits designed to help Americans weather the pandemic might soon disappear, even as COVID remains. It’s all so bleak, so inhumane, and so unjust. What retaliation do workers have? What the hell are we supposed to do?

When the New Yorker Union formed two years ago, its members cited extremely familiar problems for media workers and workers everywhere: no job security, pay disparity and inconsistency, and a lack of health care for many employees, just to name a few. These things should not be issues that workers have to go to the mat for, but this is the world that capitalism and greed hath wrought. (Along with its prestige journalism, The New Yorker has a storied tradition of union-busting: an attempt to organize in the 1970s was swiftly quashed.) The very blog you are reading now only exists because the Discourse Blog staff was unceremoniously terminated a year ago, and our former site killed. Our union contract didn’t protect us from layoffs, but it did secure a severance package—another should-be standard that many workers lack.

It’s all pretty simple, in theory—the problem is bosses and the answer is unions—but of course it’s far more complicated than that. Organizing is hard. Bargaining is hard. Management manipulates, breeds doubt, and encourages isolation. Workers are forced into feeling powerless and replaceable, and cornered into fearing for their jobs. For many, the simple idea of full-time employment is a fantasy, let alone full-time employment with company commitments to severance, parental leave, vacation days, diversity, or set salary increases. Bosses hate unions, and those who seek to snuff them out are making it clear that they hate their employees too. The Pop-Up/California Sunday crisis is just the latest example of how a union can protect, but cannot always save. 

I don’t know where we go from here, but I’ve spent the last few days thinking about something NewsGuild President Susan DeCarava said during the New Yorker Union’s just cause celebration: “The thing that really changed the course of the conversation and allowed us to be where we’re at today is simply that the members of the New Yorker Union and of the NewsGuild of New York, stood together and said no, we’re not going to allow this standard to be eroded. We deserve more. We deserve a voice in our newsroom and our workplaces and we’re determined not to allow just cause as an industry standard to falter on our watch.” 

In the forever fight for fair and equitable working conditions, what we have is each other

We’ll always be fighting, but we have more leverage than we give ourselves credit for. And if there’s any hope to be had, it’s that this hell year seems to be pushing us into a new era for the labor rights movement. Workers are fed up. People who are being pushed to their limits are pushing back. And many are realizing that any institution that’s threatened by the simple prospect of fair labor practices might not have been much of an institution to begin with. In fact, it might be one worth fighting. 

Image: Cartoon published in the Seattle Union Record in 1913. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain