As union membership declines, even modest unionization efforts take on symbolic importance. Each case seems like a sign of things to come. Success or failure at the individual level seems to portend success or failure for the broader movement.
That's why supporters and opponents of organized labor snapped to attention when workers at Gawker — a popular, youth-driven news and gossip website that specializes in snarky commentary — announced the first-ever unionization drive at a major online media company. Gawker's 119 full-time staffers will vote Wednesday on whether to join the Writers Guild of America.
If the unionization effort succeeds, it will be a big PR boost for the ailing labor movement. It will show that unions, which have focused in recent years on organizing low-wage workers, can also attract hip, highly educated workers, many of them Ivy League graduates. But if Gawker staffers reject the union, it will be an embarrassing blow to labor, especially because so much of the Gawker debate has been out in the open.
The Gawker unionization drive shows that many young people support a union for the same reasons that many of their parents and grandparents did decades ago, when organized labor was far stronger. The Gawker workers — who include writers at sister blogs Deadspin, Jezebel and Gizmodo, among others — say that having a union will assure minimum salary levels and regular raises, improved health coverage and maternity benefits, and create a grievance procedure.
In announcing the unionization drive, Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer at Gawker, seemed to be channeling Samuel Gompers. "Every workplace could use a union," Nolan wrote. "A union is the only real mechanism that exists to represent the interests of employees in a company. A union is also the only real mechanism that enables employees to join together to bargain collectively, rather than as a bunch of separate, powerless entities."
The Gawker effort is unusual in numerous ways, starting with the fact that its supporters say Gawker is currently a good place to work. Many say they want a union as a sort of insurance policy in case the next generation of managers is not so nice. "We're in a very good place right now," wrote Anne Merlan, a Jezebel writer, in an online debate about unionizing. "But we also exist in a bubble. When it bursts, I'd like us to have fair labor practices in place to protect everyone and provide for them in the event of 'downsizing.'"
In another twist, the company has not opposed the unionization drive; indeed, Gawker's founder, Nick Denton, said he was "intensely relaxed" about it. The company and the Writers Guild East even issued a joint statement: "We believe the cumbersome and often fractious process of unionization is premised on an assumption of complete antagonism between management and labor. Nothing of the kind exists at Gawker Media."
Their statement added, "We hope the labor drive at Gawker Media, culminating in the June 3 election, can serve as a new model for cooperation in digital media."
Many union supporters at Gawker say a big reason to unionize is to set an example for other online media companies whose workers are not treated nearly as well.
That Gawker is not battling the effort would make a union defeat all the more embarrassing. That was the case last year when the United Automobile Workers narrowly lost a unionization vote at Volkswagen's assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., even though the company hadn't opposed unionization.
As at Volkswagen, some Gawker workers have made known their deep-seated aversion to unions. In the online debate, Kevin Draper, a Deadspin writer, derided the Writers Guild, saying it "want(s) my money and a feather in the cap" — meaning boasting rights to be first to unionize a digital media company. A few staffers complained that the unionization drive had caused a surge of ugly divisiveness (although union opponents seemed to be tossing around most of the invective). Others said that the communications efforts by the campaign's leaders and the Writers Guild were often inadequate and stumbling.
One factor buoying the Gawker effort is that young Americans seem drawn to activism and collective action — whether it's the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter or the movement to have universities divest their oil and gas holdings. A Pew Research Center poll found that young Americans have far more favorable views of labor unions than do any other age group. Fifty-five percent of Americans age 18 to 29 said they had a favorable view of unions, compared with 29% unfavorable. For older age groups, 46% said they have a favorable view, compared with 40% to 43% unfavorable.
That poll brought unions some promising news, but there's a difference between having a favorable opinion of unions and actually wanting to join one. Wednesday's vote at Gawker will help show whether labor leaders can bridge that gap.
Steven Greenhouse was the New York Times' labor and workplace reporter from 1995 to 2014. He is the author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker."