Today, by a vote of 32 to 5, staffers on the digital side of of Al Jazeera America became the latest online journalism outlet to join a union — an unlikely trend that’s given the downtrodden labor movement hope for capturing the millennial generation.
In most ways, the campaign looked similar to those that have now swept through Gawker, Salon, Vice, the Guardian and ThinkProgress: Culturally or politically left-leaning newsrooms have sought a greater voice as upheaval and reinvention in the media industry has left many workers with a sense of instability.
But this time, there was one key difference. While every new set of workers to organize since Gawker’s writers joined the Writers Guild of America-East in April has met with zero opposition from management, Al Jazeera America’s executives put up something of a fight — which looks more like what happens in most other companies, where owners typically don’t roll out the red carpet when the union marches in.
"I think this string of recent victories, with newsrooms being able to get unionized through the process of voluntary recognition, has been really exciting for the labor movement,” Newsguild organizer Nastaran Mohit said. “But in general it’s very atypical. As more folks in the industry organize, we’re going to find that not all of them are hospitable to a union.”
The animating force behind the online division’s drive was a desire to bring order to a chaotic world at Al Jazeera America, a two-year-old offshoot of the Qatari-owned global broadcast network. Under a previous chief executive, staffers say, decisions felt arbitrary and opaque.
Organizers started talking about unionizing about a year ago. They kicked into high gear over the summer, as news stories reported other Web site staffs winning their unions with ease. In this new era of information transparency, perhaps journalists could use their own platforms to broadcast any anti-union actions — which might rankle younger, more sympathetic audiences.
“We’ve got a different environment now, where consumers of information are pretty savvy, and they pay attention to things,” says Lowell Peterson, president of the Writers Guild of America-East, which organized the other newsrooms. “Anything bad that an employer says is immediately out there. I think that’s probably something of a constraint on employer opposition.”
In September, Al Jazeera staffers started to hope that their union drive might turn out to be just as conflict-free. But when workers presented management with their petition to join the Newsguild, along with signed cards from a majority of the staff, Al Jazeera America declined to “voluntarily recognize” the union, as all the other publications had done. Rather, leaders said nothing, forcing a secret ballot election.
Historically, employers have sometimes used the time afforded by a formal National Labor Relations Board process to campaign aggressively against the union, sometimes firing its organizers or promising rewards for those who vote no. The Newsguild hasn’t complained of that kind of illegal behavior at Al Jazeera.
Chief Executive Al Anstey did, however, hold one of his few meetings with the digital staff since taking the job in April. There, workers say, he made the case for "open communication" between staff and supervisors. He also promised to work toward fixes for some of their grievances, like a lack of salary adjustments for cost of living. In the following weeks, supervisors held meetings with some employees one-on-one to deliver the same message.
“Throughout this process, the intent was to have these conversations to be open, to be transparent, to hear from employees what their thoughts were,” Al Jazeera America spokeswoman Mallory Weinberg says. "They absolutely never ever discouraged employees from voting for the union.”
Employees describe a different environment. When the union had conversations with management, only the network’s hired lawyers and its general counsel were present, rather than Anstey or Al Jazeera America’s president, Kate O’Brian.
"The way that [opposition] manifested is less in the form of active interference and more in the form of declining to talk to us,” reporter Ned Resnikoff says. “They had that line in the press release where they said they had open conversations with employees, and I haven’t had anything that would resemble open conversations.”
The legal team from DLA Piper — which advertises its services in combating union campaigns — also strenuously objected to including nine low-level editors in the union in proceedings before the NLRB.
It’s difficult to tell why Al Jazeera resisted unionization efforts. Although some of its staff in Britain are represented by the National Union of Journalists, the broadcast side in the United States is non-union, unlike many other major American news networks. Several of Al Jazeera’s executives came from those networks, and may have been accustomed to a more adversarial relationship between labor and leadership.
Whatever the reason behind them, news editor Gregg Levine, one of those active in the effort from the beginning, thinks management’s actions were counterproductive. "I think it worked in helping us organize,” he says. “If they intended to scare, intimidate or sugar anyone, they did a really bad job.”
Now the newly organized digital writers want to expand to the rest of the operation — the broadcast division is much larger and has had some of the same complaints about unexplained changes and lack of transparency from management. “In terms of a wall-to-wall union, that’s our dream,” reporter Tammy Kim says.
But organizing the TV staff could prove difficult, according to employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely. There’s very little interaction between the Web site staff and the broadcast side, which are housed in different buildings. While conditions have improved under the new CEO, many people still have one foot out the door — and it’s hard to generate support for a union when people aren’t committed to sticking around.
“At least on the broadcast side, you’ve got a lot of really experienced people, and they know that things are not right,” one TV reporter says. “The questions are festering about whether a union is the best route to take, or they’re going to take an exit strategy.”
On the other hand, the network has started to convert many of its on-air personalities to at-will employees once their contracts expire, creating a sense of insecurity that might lead some to seek the moderate protection of a collective bargaining agreement.
“I’ve got a son and a mortgage,” said one such staffer. “If a group of people were doing it, I would be on the side of a union. But I wouldn’t start it.”
Either way, Al Jazeera’s experience is likely to represent more closely what most journalists can expect if they try to go down the same path — not brass-knuckled union-busting, perhaps, but not an open-arm welcome, either.