Over the past few months, a wave of unionization has swept across new media. On Friday, the media union movement got its first official enemy. Now writers get to find out who is a friend, and who is just a friendly-looking man with his hand in your pocket.
Until now, the union movement—which thus far includes Gawker, Salon, The Guardian US, and Vice—has met with (varying degrees of) acceptance from management, though not with total affinity. At this stage, it can safely be said that the benefits of organizing have become abundantly clear to workers in our industry. Online journalists may be vain, short-sighted click whores chasing sensationalism at great detriment to the rarefied public dialogue, but even we are generally smart enough to recognize the fact that collective bargaining is the best way to protect ourselves from the predations of our beloved capitalist owners. [Disclosure: As an employee of an online media company who believes in the right of workers to join together in order to better our collective circumstances and avoid, as best we can, being crushed at will by economic powers far greater than ourselves, I am biased in favor of unions.]
The owners of the biggest online media concerns today tend to be outspoken liberals, and their editorial products reflect that. Vice, and the Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed are all generally liberal news sites. Vice’s owner, Shane Smith, voiced no opposition when his employees asked to unionize. The Huffington Post’s owner, Arianna Huffington, has not been asked yet, and has said nothing. Buzzfeed’s boss, Jonah Peretti, has not been subjected to a formal union request from his employees either. But on Friday, he voiced the opinion that a union would not be “right” for Buzzfeed. He did so with amazing doublespeak. Though unions, he said “have had a positive impact” on blue collar workplaces where labor is more “replaceable,” the opposite is true at Buzzfeed—because Buzzfeed, he said, competes for talent with tech companies like Google, and must therefore offer great pay and benefits, and a union would introduce an “adversarial” element into the worker-management relationship that is now, he implies, so favorable to Buzzfeed workers.
“I think that actually wouldn’t be very good for employees at BuzzFeed — particularly people who are writers and reporters,” Peretti said, “because the [compensation] for writers and reporters are much less favorable than [compensation] for startup companies and tech companies.”
First of all: if you are a Buzzfeed employee and you do not think you are “replaceable,” you are fooling yourself. We are all replaceable. We work in an industry in which there is a greater supply of good writers than there are well-paying writing jobs. Ask the thousands of talented and experienced newspaper reporters laid off in the past decade how non-replaceable they turned out to be. Even the most skilled and gifted writer of astounding prose is replaceable, if business reasons call for it. Listicle composers, even more so.
Second: the idea that Buzzfeed exists in some novel bubble separate and apart from the dynamics of business and capitalism and labor is false. Buzzfeed is a company that exists to make money. It employs writers and editors for that purpose. That is all you need to know. Buzzfeed has large outside investors who expect to make money on their investment. Buzzfeed has executives like Jonah Peretti who expect to be paid large and increasing amounts of money each year. These people have a great deal of leverage over what editorial employees are paid. A unionized workplace with collective bargaining rights would enable editorial employees themselves to have a larger amount of leverage over what they are paid. For this reason, management does not want a union in the workplace. This is the very oldest story in the labor relations book. The fact that Jonah Peretti is presenting this as something new just goes to show that Jonah Peretti is something very old: an anti-union owner.
Here is an accurate translation of Jonah Peretti’s statement about unions: “Compensation and working conditions at Buzzfeed now are pretty good. I like to insinuate that the writers and editors I employ are ‘tech’ employees, even though they are clearly journalists, because online media executives tend to have a fetish for defining themselves as ‘tech’ companies, because tech companies tend to have higher valuations than media companies. It would be a shame if you were to unionize and force me to change my mind about what kind of employees you are and bust you down to lowly journalism pay rates. Think hard before you force me to do something bad to you.”
His original words were very friendly. Their actual meaning is the language of abusers.
Jonah Peretti, who in his younger days wrote Marxist theory, is now a rich businessman who behaves like a rich businessman. That itself is one of history’s cliches, and it should surprise no one. But let us be clear on why he does not want his employees to organize for their own common good. The reason is financial self-interest. Unions enable workers to get a larger piece of the financial pie. Owners and investors, even very rich ones like Jonah Peretti, do not want that to happen. So they do not want unions in their companies. This is extremely simple. There is nothing more to it. In this particular way, Buzzfeed is no different from any other online media company, or newspaper, or auto assembly factory. It is a company with workers and it prefers those workers to have as little collective power as possible, because that means the company has relatively more collective power.
As of now, Buzzfeed employees have not asked to unionize. Buzzfeed employees have not even taken to Twitter to grumble about the fact that their boss took a preemptive shot at their right to unionize. And if Buzzfeed employees do not ever want to unionize, that is their right. They should not, however, be fooled by their own current pleasant workplace situation. Jonah Peretti is the head of a multibillion-dollar business with powerful investors to answer to. Jonah Peretti is not a liberal. Jonah Peretti is not your friend. Jonah Peretti is just another rich man trying to get richer at your expense.
If that rubs you the wrong way, organize.