Employees at Gawker Media voted to unionize in early June, sparking a ton of debate about the unstable nature of jobs in the digital media industry.
Proponents of collective bargaining argue that it helps employees protect their pay, benefits and treatment, insulating workers from the consequences of market fluctuations and management decisions. Yet opponents argue that while it may lead to better conditions for current workers, it can force businesses to downsize their staff and also limit hiring opportunities.
The Challenges of Working in Digital Media
With the financial uncertainty inherent to the media industry, the future of many jobs is uncertain. Turnover is high and pay is often low because competition for jobs is fierce and companies still haven’t figured out how to make money off producing content. The blogging culture has also broken down many of the barriers to creating content, causing an influx of would-be media workers.
In the startup culture, companies struggle to have more formal communication between management and workers as they grow and add more employees, another reason cited by Gawker unionizers. Management may not be aware of discontent among the workforce, and unions are a way to have a designated voice of the people inside the C-suite. Having someone to lobby on employees behalf over issues like what happens when you get fired, minimum salaries for certain positions, and the processes for assessing raises and promotions, will be good for management and workers alike.
However there’s another set of workers that will be affected by the unionization of full-time employees. According to the Freelancers Union–just a brand name since freelancers are not considered employees and are therefore not allowed to organize under the National Labor Relations Act — 34 percent of the American workforce are freelance or temporary workers.
The digital media industry is especially populated with contract workers seeking flexible schedules. They are often under loose, temporary agreements with companies and are the first to be cut when money problems arise. Even more at the mercy of the market or the whims of management, freelancers lose jobs in an instant with no explanation and no safety net.
While there are a lot of perks to working freelance, it is a risky position to be in when full-time employees unionize. If management has to compromise and make budget cuts, freelancers will likely bear the brunt since they aren’t part of the employee union and don’t benefit from its collect bargaining power.
In an ideal world, management would create clear, inclusive guidelines around important issues such as severance pay, minimum salaries, and a process for raises and promotions, and clearly communicate that to staff without the pressure and animosity that comes from forming a union.
When you decide on a career path, it’s important to know collective bargaining’s influence in your chosen field. If you’re looking for an entry-level opportunity or freelance gig, it could take away some of your bargaining power.
These would be great questions to ask in an interview when the HR person inevitable asks what questions you have for her. Ask about the culture, management’s communication and specific processes. They’ll be impressed that you’re so tuned in to the key labor issues of today and dedicated to ensuring the company is a good fit–one for which you’ll be proud to work hard.