Vice Media workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your unicorn!
By Errol Salamon
This post is the second in a series called “E-Lancer Writes,” exploring the working conditions, rights, and collective organizing strategies of freelance journalists, interns, and other low-wage or temporary digital media workers.
Earlier this month, Vice UK workers announced that they’re campaigning to unionize with the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). In August 2015, Vice US editorial employees in the digital verticals voted to become members of the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). In December 2015, Vice Canada workers revealed that they’re attempting to organize with the Canadian Media Guild (CMG).
These organizing efforts come after “a wave of unionization in digital media in the last eight months,” wrote Lowell Peterson, WGAE Executive Director, in an email to Story Board.
After Gawker Media workers voted to join the WGAE in June 2015, workers at other digital media outlets quickly followed, including Salon, ThinkProgress, and The Huffington Post. These unionization drives are part of the Guild’s Digital Writers Union campaign.
“The very public decision of the editorial employees of Gawker inspired a lot of other digital media employees to pay attention, and made clear that collective bargaining was a real and viable option for people who work in this area,” wrote Peterson.
However, CMG union organizer Karen Wirsig told Story Board that the concerns of digital media workers aren’t really related to the fact that they’re doing “digital work.”
“It’s more to the fact that this is a start-up culture in a totally deregulated environment in which companies can kind of do what they want,” she said.
Vice union goes global
Vice was founded by Suroosh Alvi, Shane Smith, and Gavin McInnes in 1994 as a free punk magazine in Montreal. Now based in New York, Vice is worth $4 billion (US) and has 28 offices in 26 countries across North America, Europe, South America, Australia, and Asia. The company has quickly become a multiplatform and multinational news and entertainment “unicorn”—a term referring to technology startups like Vice valued at $1 billion or more.
As Vice continues to grow, employees wonder when they will get to “share in the success of the company,” explained NUJ union organizer Kristin Hamada in a phone interview with Story Board.
Some Vice workers feel exploited.
“How come that’s not trickling down to the people who are making the content?” asked a Vice UK employee who spoke to Story Board on the condition of anonymity.
“We’ve hit our stride in making content for young people, and yet the only people who are benefiting from that are the old management at the top, and we’re not seeing any of those benefits.”
Vice employees worldwide are organizing to address many common issues, including low pay, lack of job security, poor benefits, and lack of transparency and communication with management about career progression.
“The company gives very young people really inflated titles on very little pay,” explained the Vice UK worker.
“It’s not just about pay. We want to make Vice better. We’re practically doing them a favour by giving them good PR because we want to keep making that amazing content but on fair wages and with career progression.”
The multinational startup has driven its employees to unite within and beyond national borders.
“If the company wasn’t global, if there was no New York office, if it was just Toronto, I don’t even think we’d be having this conversation right now,” said a Vice Canada worker who asked to remain anonymous.
The Vice Canada employee explained that because they work so closely with their colleagues at other Vice offices, they feel comfortable talking to each other about pay rates and working conditions and the collective action they can take to improve their conditions.
Hamada echoed these comments, saying that Vice UK staff occasionally travel to the New York office, so they’re able to build relationships. Even Vice employees who don’t know their counterparts in other countries still feel a sense of solidarity with each other.
“They know what it’s like to work in this way and they don’t want other people to be exploited,” she explained.
The unionization campaigns at Vice Media in the US and UK have inspired Vice Canada workers.
“People who were on the fence about it in the Toronto office are more on board with it now when they see that our colleagues in the New York office and the London office are unionizing,” said the Vice Canada worker.
When Vice UK workers announced that they were unionizing, they gave the Canadian employees “hope” that they could organize the Toronto office, too.
“This is inevitable,” said the Vice Canada worker. “Our office IS going to unionize.”
Likewise, the Vice UK employee said that international organizing efforts encouraged them to mobilize, even though a group of Vice workers in London had initially discussed unionizing before 2015.
Hamada succinctly captured the unique feeling of being part of a “global movement.”
“The first time when workers get together and they realize that everyone else is experiencing the same issues—it was like that. But because it was global, it was unreal for people.”
Vice workers use digital media and branding to organize
Some Vice employees—mostly members of the Vice News editorial staff and social media team in the US—have changed their Twitter profile photos to the “Vice Union” image.
“It’s to show solidarity and support,” explained the Vice Canada worker, “because they can’t tweet about what’s happening.”
According to the Vice UK Worker, “It’s a clever way of showing your solidarity and showing your support without being too confrontational.”
Hamada agrees that the image is a powerful marker of international solidarity.
“People in the US are using it, why don’t we use it? Why don’t we share it with Canada, if Canada wants to use it? We can all be moving in the same direction,” she said.
The Vice Union image, which includes the “Vice News” font, is also important to the organizing effort because Vice is so much a part of their identities, said Hamada.
“Trying to use the Vice brand to promote the union was also a thing,” she said.
For their union town hall meeting, they made a little booklet—Vice Magazine: The Union Issue.
“It was important for them to embrace elements of Vice and use them in a union way to communicate with people,” said Hamada.
“Style is a thing. Their company has a specific brand and a specific feel to it. They want to embrace that but add something.”
Some Vice workers have also created “secret” Facebook groups.
“Having a secret Facebook group is a way of allaying people’s fears that if you do any kind of union activity you might be punished,” the Vice UK worker told Story Board.
The future of organizing digital media unicorns
Regular labour reporting on the organizing drives is ultimately vital. The Vice Canada worker said that using news media can effectively bring awareness to unionization efforts and give them credibility.
“People in the office don’t talk about unionizing, but then they see these publications that they view as credible reporting on it, and they’re like, ‘oh, okay, maybe I should pay attention to this,’” the Vice worker said.
According to Hamada, the ultimate goal of the organizing efforts is for digital workers to create sector-standard rates of pay along with clear terms and conditions.
The digital unionization wave in the US has created an opportunity to establish some of these sector-wide standards. As digital media startups continue to expand globally, international and sector-wide organizing campaigns are giving workers a chance to unite and share in the success of their unicorns.
Want more information about the union efforts in Canada and abroad? Get in touch on Twitter @errolouvrier.
Errol Salamon is an associate member of CWA Canada. He’s co-editor and contributor to the forthcoming book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press).