Huffington Post staffers today pounded their ownership on Twitter over an alleged stall in the newsroom’s efforts to reach a collective bargaining agreement with management.
The social media blasts come at the tail of a year that started with much optimism among editorial staffers at the Huffington Post. In January, management voluntarily recognized the site’s union as organized under the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). The development was among a wave that saw digital media organizations like Gawker (now Gizmodo), Vice and others go union. “I am delighted to let you know that we have reached an agreement with the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) to proceed to voluntary recognition by counting signed union cards,” wrote Arianna Huffington, then the president and editor in chief of the Huffington Post, in an email to staffers.
With about 250 editorial members — reporters, editors, video types and social-media aces — the union plowed into discussions with management. As this blog has reported, union negotiators in the spring addressed the matter of editorial independence and integrity, a pressing concern in light of Huffington’s criss-crossing, editorially polluting friendships and partnerships with news-making organizations like Uber. And Sleep Number.
“That’s been one of the issues we’ve negotiated successfully,” says Lowell Peterson, WGAE executive director, in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog. Not that they’ll need that provision so urgently anymore — Huffington left her post, and the company hired Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times, a serious journalist, to take over the newsroom. The Huffington Post is a unit of AOL, which is owned by Verizon.
Pay is another matter, however. According to Peterson, the union pressed for pay increases over the course of the three-year contract and received a stunning response from management. “What we got was a proposal from management with no raises in the contract. We said, ‘You can’t be serious about that’ and they said, ‘Yes, we are,’ ” recalls Peterson. Asked whether he’s ever experienced such a position in contract talks, Peterson responded no, then corrected himself. “I have seen it when companies have gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy,” he says.
Nor is hardship behind the hard line, or at least as far as the union can discern. “Management did not claim that it lacks the wherewithal,” says Peterson. “The company has never suggested that there’s any business problem at the Huffington Post.” WGAE negotiated union contracts at Gawker Media (now Gizmodo Media Group) and Vice. At Gawker, the initial contract contained 3 percent raises, and at Vice, it delivered a considerable 39 percent boost of salary and benefits over the course of the contract. The pay request at Huffington Post, says Peterson, was between those two poles.
Huffington Post union types have been tight-lipped about their negotiations. Previous inquiries to them have generally generated brief and un-juicy conversations. That they’re now tweeting about this apparent impasse reflects the idea that they’re angry. “We just got this proposal from management a couple of days ago and people were just outraged and people wanted to express it,” says Peterson.
The news is grim for Polgreen, too, who will presumably come into the organization with plans to upgrade the editorial product. Such a change in regime invariably involves hiring, which in turn involves convincing talented people that there’s a future at the Huffington Post. The scenario laid out by Peterson could well complicate such efforts.
We have checked with the Huffington Post and are awaiting its response to the union’s statements.
Update: A spokesperson has released this statement — “The Huffington Post is deeply committed to its employees and to
reaching a deal with the union, and we continue to negotiate in good
faith with them.”