by Jez Watson
With the recent wave of unionization across the media sphere, workers in other white-collar industries have started wondering if organizing their workplaces is possible. Journalist Hamilton Nolan of Splinter News dropped by Fishbowl for a Q&A about the growing demand for unions in advertising.
Hamilton is a former writer at Gawker, the first online media company to form a union back in 2015. Their efforts opened the door for employees at publications from The Onion to The New Yorker to organize for fairness and transparency in hiring, promotions, salaries and more.
During his Q&A on Fishbowl, Hamilton answered questions about the process, the challenges and the benefits of unionizing. He also addressed some of the fears and misconceptions people held.
Nipping nepotism and favoritism in the bud
An organized workforce is one that can share the wealth more fairly—not just monetarily but creatively as well. Multiple questions were asked about our industry’s Old (White) Boys Club and how promotions and raises always seem to end up going to the same people.
“Diversifying the industry and making it more open to people is a major issue at virtually every union shop… Unions are a tool that can be used to fight for whatever is important to you.”
The issue of unsystematic title and salary hierarchies is a huge cause of stress for employees, especially those who enter the industry from non-traditional backgrounds and get lowballed, making it hard to catch up to their peers no matter how talented they may be.
A union can help you standardize reviews and promotions—and keep them attached to raises.
Deciding who is in the union
A strategy director raised the question of our industry’s many levels of management and supervision. Would that complicate establishing a bargaining unit?
“You, the employees, decide who you want to include in your union, and then you negotiate that scope with the company… it’s something you can all fight for together.”
Bargaining better layoff packages
A project manager asked how a union could help in the case of layoffs, a sad (and cyclical) reality in our industry. In turn, Hamilton explained “effects bargaining” and talked through the severance agreements that can be written into your contracts.
“When layoffs happen in a union workplace, there’s something called “effects bargaining,” which is basically bargaining the terms of separation.”
During layoffs within the last year at both Vox Media and The Onion, workers not only got advanced notice (no more, “pack up your desk and go”!) but also left with 18 weeks of paid severance.
Protecting benefits in a flooded labor market
When one Fishbowl user questioned the use of a union at all because there are “too many people working in the industry,” Hamilton pointed out that the union’s democratic process allows workers to vote down contracts that don’t benefit them.
Others chimed in to point out that the undervaluation of labor that is so prevalent across the industry is exactly why workers could use the power of a union.
Better working conditions, better work
A question from a Saatchi & Saatchi employee asked if the quality of creative output can change with a union and whether a change might inspire clients to take their work in-house.
“They shouldn’t have any effect on your creative output, except to the extent that they will improve your working conditions and make you happier.”
But… won’t they just fire us?
Of course, Hamilton touched on the Big Question that was on everyone’s mind. If we try to form a union, can’t we simply be let go or blacklisted from agency life?
“It’s illegal to fire you for organizing in the USA. The law is on your side and you can sue. It’s a protected activity.”
In fact, the right to assemble is enshrined in the First Amendment, alongside our freedom of speech and religion.
Getting started with a trusted union’s organizers
By the end of the week, people were fired up and ready to act.
Thankfully, Hamilton was ready with some suggestions of trusted unions, including the Writers Guild of America, which helped Gawker get their union off the ground.
The future is ours to organize
Our industry doesn’t have to be as exploitive as it has become. We don’t need to jump from agency to agency every couple of years to get ahead. We don’t need to suffer through burnout, sexual harassment or constant job insecurity. We can change these things.
What Hamilton made clear in his Q&A was that a union is whatever the employees want it to be. It’s just a structure that allows workers to fight for what they want, together. Once the first one is formed, others will follow.
And it all starts with talking to your coworkers about their problems, and deciding to do something about it.
Be sure to check out Fishbowl’s Organizing Bowl as a great way to start.