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Hamilton Nolan on How to Be a Union Leader

“It’s like having another full-time job, except you don’t get paid and it makes everybody hate you.”

Gawker Media moved to unionize this past June, voting 80–27 to join the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE). The decision attracted the notice of major press outlets across the country, and in subsequent months, several high-profile digital media companies followed Gawker’s lead and voted to organize — including Salon, VICE and the Guardian U.S. Just yesterday, the Huffington Post’s management ‘recognized’ its employees’ union.

Interest in unions is beginning to heat up in other industries as well, arguably in response to rising income inequality, stagnant wages and decreased job security, even as the economy bounces back from the 2008 recession. The new labor movement recalls the rhetoric of Norma Rae rather than The Sopranos: gaining fair employee conditions from a management class obsessed solely with maximizing shareholder value, no matter the cost. Young people around the country are joining in. As Bloomberg News reported about a year ago, “Unions are poised for a comeback.”

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association — a case that Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan writes, “could do more to damage public employee unions than anything the Republican party has done in decades.”

We spoke with Nolan, a key figure in Gawker’s union drive, to learn how, (and why) he was willing to stick his neck out — possibly risking his own career prospects — in order to become a union organizer.

What was your personal experience of unions prior to this?
I’ve never been in a union, but my dad was a big lefty who spent some time as a union organizer in Atlanta before I was born, so I have a good political lineage at least.

Whom did you seek out for advice, and how did the WGAE get in the mix?
I did talk to my dad a bit during the process since he knew how messy these campaigns can be. The origin of the WGA connection was, I was talking to one of their organizers, Ursula Lawrence, about how she wanted to unionize VICE; eventually, I just thought, “What about us?” The WGA people gave us a lot of good guidance throughout the process.

There was an enormous amount of coverage of this story.
Maybe the biggest value of our union will be symbolic. There were New York Times stories about it, and we’d unionized, like, a hundred and some employees. Later, I talked with some union people who said yeah, we’d just organized like 2,000 sanitation workers on that same day, and nobody would write a story about it.

How do you explain that? Is it just because they’re somehow not as sexy as Gawker unionizing?
Our union had a novelty factor, in that we were one of the first places of our kind to do it. In that sense it was more “newsy” than a standard union campaign, even though it might have less real-world impact than a bigger campaign that doesn’t have that novelty. Also, the media loves to write about the media.

I look at that differently. You’re bringing a new way of looking at unions to the attention of vast numbers of people; there’s more to the story than just the size of the company.
I’ve been writing about labor stuff for a long time, and every time I’d write something about unions, somebody would say in the comments, “Why don’t you have a union?” I’d always felt like it was more important for blue-collar workers at, say, McDonald’s or Walmart to have a union. I didn’t think it was as important for us to be unionized, but over time, I came around.

You should be philosophically consistent: If you believe in organized labor, you should try to do it in your own workplace. And then, on some level, it’s important because we’re in an unstable industry, and we’ve seen what a recession looks like in this industry, and there are a lot of people making money in this industry.

In new media especially, the whole idea that BuzzFeed is trying to sell — that you’re not journalists, you’re start-up workers in some amazing new tech field. I mean, it’s bullshit! I want to see how much Jonah Peretti is getting paid. He works in a start-up industry, but his journalists obviously don’t. The whole thing is ridiculous. This industry isn’t in a magical situation that’s never been seen before. It’s capital and labor at work: very simple, at the end of the day.

How has the new regime changed your job and your life?
On a day-to-day level, it’s like having another full-time job, except you don’t get paid and it makes everybody hate you. Everybody at Gawker is friends, generally speaking; you hang out, and then people will have these strong feelings about the union and get pissed and argue. So there’s always a disincentive to do this, just because you don’t want to start arguments. Somehow you have to convince people that it’s worth the hassle.

One thing I learned during the process was that communication was everything. The vast majority of the objections were driven by communication, rather than by a philosophical opposition to unions. Organizing this group of 120 people all over the country — it’s hard to keep that many people in the loop.

Had you done much political or community organizing before this?
Nothing on this scale. It’s really the opposite of what I do. My job is normally to come in and say exactly what I think about anything. So if I disagree with somebody, I can just write an essay and be like, “You’re a fucking idiot, and you’re wrong because of X, Y and Z. And fuck you!” That’s what I normally do.

This is the exact opposite of that. It is politics, and you have to listen to everybody and you have to respond to everybody and you have to not piss off everybody. So it was probably good training for me.

How does the organization work now? Are you a shop steward?
We have a 20-person bargaining committee that’s been working with the union people to draw up our list of what we want to bargain for. We spent a month or two doing that, and we’ve pretty much got our list of demands — or whatever the nice word for “demands” is — down. They’re going to start bargaining next week, I believe. It’s a very democratic process so far, which makes it go a little slower actually. But that’s how it is.

I hope it will go smooth. So far it seems like Nick [Denton, Gawker’s CEO] and management have been amenable to the union. I hope that carries into bargaining, because now it might start costing them money.