Gawker readers were presented with some startling news on Thursday afternoon: The popular Web site's mostly 20-something staff is planning to join the Writers Guild of America. The post, entitled "Why we've decided to organize," came after a meeting of about 30 writers that convinced de facto leader Hamilton Nolan there was no way the decision could remain under wraps, so he might as well announce it first.
"It would be easier to have this conversation internally," he wrote. "But Gawker Media is, for better or worse, a company with a rich history of gossip."
The fact that what was essentially a press release about the union drive went out on the company's own substantial platform wasn't the only unusual thing about this organizing effort. It was also greeted by management with a decided ... passivity.
"I do not commit to neutrality and I will not be fighting anything," wrote Gawker managing editor Lacey Donohue in an e-mail, after tweeting that she was "deeply in love with a proud member of WGA West." In an all-hands meeting following the blog post, Nolan says that executive editor Tommy Craggs told the staff he had no problem with them forming a union. And most importantly, owner and CEO Nick Denton told Capital New York that he was "intensely relaxed" about the idea of having a union at his own company.
That's led Nolan to believe that there won't be any kind of real resistance from on high.
"This company is full of socialists," he said in an interview. "We just had a meeting with the whole company and everybody talked about it and that’s okay, and nobody’s afraid they’re going to get fired for it."
So is it possible that it's not so difficult to organize in new media as the paucity of unions there would seem to suggest? That while it might seem hard at first, ownership won't actually try to stand in workers' way?
Well, there's no guarantee that other online outfits -- such as Vice, which Nolan has repeatedly dinged for its low salaries -- will react with the same sanguinity. But it's also possible that, just as many dated styles come back into vogue eventually, unions have taken on a kind of retro cool among the youth of today. And corporations that depend on attracting that demographic -- both as a workforce and as a readership -- might figure that trying to bust a union could pose too great a risk to their brand.
Of course, the bigger thing holding back unions at Web publishers has been the desires of workers themselves, who often feel that they're in it together with the companies they work for, and that a union might drive a wedge through that happy camaraderie. But as Nolan pointed out in his post, those companies are growing up, and taking on the incentives of big media -- so it might be worth setting up some protection.
Here's another important part of the nascent Gawker union: It doesn't have to look like the decades-old institutions that represent legacy journalism, which sometimes have trouble balancing the interests of long-time and newer employees. Rather, it can get buy-in from all the writers across Gawker's properties from the get-go, and create an organization that reflects the changes in media.
"One thing that everybody likes about this company is the freedom we have, the flexibility we have. We can write what we want, say what we want," Nolan says. "Most people at the union meeting said 'we like working here, and nobody wants a crazy bureaucracy laying down arcane rules about what we can and can’t do.'"
If that's true, it's worth considering the implications for unionization more broadly, when the media outlets with the greatest reach among the youngest people have successfully organized. Movements need benchmarks that illustrate what's possible, like the $21-an-hour McDonalds salaries in Denmark that have fueled demands for better wages in the U.S., or the Seattle CEO who took a pay cut to boost all his employees at least $70,000 a year. If they can do it, the logic goes, then what's the hold up for everyone else?