Well, the unions that represent them certainly think so. In times of drought, as veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse points out, even the small victories seem hugely significant -- even a "BFD," as the American Federation of State, Federal, and Municipal Employees called it in a release following the vote.
“The word I would use is that it’s a harbinger of things to come,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newsguild, which represents workers at many of the nation's largest media companies. "Workers in what used to be new media have the same concerns as everyone else. I think people think the Internet is still magic, but the truth of the matter is that people are people. So someone will come to an organization when they’re 22 or 24, they’ll work 12 hours a day and be happy for the free espresso machine. But eventually they’ll settle down, want to have a house and children.”
And that, Lunzer says, is what will drive them towards forming a union — longer term security, especially in the event that the outlet gets bought out by another, which is happening left and right in the turbulent digital space.
That seems to be validated by the comments of those who argued for unionization in the Gawker staff's very public debate over what to do. Many were careful to point out that while they loved their jobs, and appreciated their benefits, there’s no telling what might happen if ownership changed. Staffer Erin Gloria Ryan put anti-union arguments in terms of choosing whether or not to fund a fire department.
“But my house isn’t currently on fire.”
“But what about candles?”
“Once I lived in a town with a fire department and my house still burned down!”
“But I’ve always put out my own small and manageable fires!”
The Gawker campaign was also unusual, even among media companies, for several reasons.
First, staffers were essentially able to use their employer’s own platform to announce, advocate for, and discuss the union drive. That suggests a culture of ownership that’s exceptionally tolerant even among young digital media companies.
Secondly, Gawker’s ownership immediately declared neutrality — if not outright favorability — towards the union drive. "We are united in our belief that writers should decide for themselves whether to organize to protect their own rights through collective bargaining," wrote executive editor Tommy Craggs, "and we hope the labor drive at Gawker Media, culminating in the June 3 election, can serve as a new model for cooperation in digital media."
Owner Nick Denton, while the vote was going on Wednesday, even told Capital New York he had long been intrigued by the German model of co-determination between management and the rank and file. That’s not something you’d necessarily see at a media outlet that’s been gobbled up by a mainstream corporation.
Finally, Gawker is actually one of the more mature digital media companies out there, and it’s had more time to develop a business model. It’s frequently boasted of being profitable without venture capital, which is hardly the norm (and which certainly has been problematic for many “legacy" media companies where organizing drives have been attempted). When prosperity arrives, workers start to feel entitled to some share of that success.
“When people know that even the value of the property has gone up to a certain level, there’s an actual feeling of ‘hey, spread some of that money around,’ ” Lunzer says. Mostly, he’s trying to get rid of the idea that unions are greedy, heedless beings who might unintentionally kill their hosts. “The really important thing I want to say is it does not mean they’re hostile to management or crazed socialists who want to burn the place down,” he says.
But here’s a way in which Gawker isn’t unique: It’s full of smart young people who don't take well to being told by management what to think. Should organizing come to other techy media spots, any attempt at Wal-Mart-style "union deterrence" might damage their image.
And now, perhaps more aggressively than ever, Gawker will be around to scold them for it.