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A TPM Union Is Born

It started with some whispers of solidarity among the editorial staff, the rapid-succession hiring of a few fresh faces to several junior positions — one of whom (me, Summer) had gone through a vicious round of layoffs at her old newsroom shortly after the 2016 presidential election — and a spreadsheet started by a few on the editorial team who were on board with turning TPM into a union shop.

The broad movement within the digital media industry was sparked five years ago when Gawker Media organized its union with the Writer’s Guild of America, East in 2015. It didn’t take long for the unionization movement in digital media to take off as WGAE won representation at 21 union shops in recent years, covering more than 2,000 employees in the industry. Some of TPM’s union cohorts include Vice, Vox, Salon and Huffington Post.

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In an ever-changing industry that’s been subject to rounds of layoffs and changes in leadership ownership/structure, hundreds of digital media employees have come together to ensure they have a seat at the table at the news organizations that they helped build. In addition to guaranteeing that employees have a say in the future of their news organization, digital media unions also work towards achieving equity across the industry by building a long-term movement to address and change systemic issues in the industry, which includes efforts to diversify representation in staffing.

Prior to being hired as TPM’s front page editor in June 2017, I covered the 2016 presidential election cycle for the now-defunct Fusion network’s digital editorial team. (Fusion still apparently operates as a paid TV news channel, but over the past few years it’s undergone ownership changes and a complete rebrand that eventually turned into Splinter — which also became defunct after its parent company G/O Media laid off all of the site’s staff members last year. The digital media industry is a tumultuous one.)

During my time covering the 2016 election cycle that propelled Trump to the monstrous national spotlight that’s evolved into what we now know as the dwindling, chaotic Trump administration, I also became involved in Fusion’s union organizing efforts.

I was a neophyte to the labor movement upon joining Fusion’s union organizing team under the direction of WGAE (the Writer’s Guild of America, East), which I felt compelled to do after management gave me and the rest of my colleagues (who were also hired to cover the 2016 election) two months’ notice that we were due to get the axe the week after what would become Trump’s stunning election victory. I didn’t want the rest of Fusion’s staffers at the time to go through what I had — getting blindsided with an NDA that included severance pay that we had no say in.

I learned a lot from my first go at union organizing just before I and many other Fusion staffers were laid off. We felt that we were joining a movement in digital media that Gawker had started by telling management that we deserve to have a say in our workplace conditions.

As I began job hunting in the months following Fusion’s massive layoffs (I fortunately kept myself afloat financially through freelance investigative research for the Nation Institute), I knew that wherever I landed, I wanted to put effort into organizing a union if one wasn’t already in place. No journalist deserved the fate that befell my coworkers and I at Fusion — or the fate we’ve seen transpire at countless other digital media outlets in recent years; an endless pattern of downsizing and layoffs, made even worse by the pandemic and the economic collapse of 2020.

I was hired as TPM’s front page editor in June 2017 and five months later, a glimmer of an organizing effort came to fruition: My colleagues Cristina Cabrera and Matt Shuham sent an email to my personal Gmail account (and those of other TPM staffers) asking whether I would be interested in participating in a survey sharing data on salaries and pay equity at TPM. The salary data survey would be shared with fellow colleagues (outside of management positions) who also participated.

The survey was partly inspired by another union movement across the country, at the Los Angeles Times. A reporter for the Times, Matt Pearce, had written online about the practice of asking colleagues about their salaries, as a way of building solidarity and exposing pay disparities. (A couple years later the Washington Post Guild would take this to the extreme, publishing a 500-page statistical analysis showing pay disparities by race, gender and age.) Cristina and Matt Shuham, curious about TPM’s own pay equity, began recruiting survey participants.

“Salary info is generally considered to be private, but with your data, we can try to ensure that existing and future TPM employees have information on their side when they make professional decisions,” Cristina wrote in an email dated November 27, 2017.

I knew right at that moment that the time was ripe to kick start the goal of turning TPM into a union shop, a goal that was clearly shared by most of my colleagues. Nearly every member of the TPM editorial team at the time participated in the salary data survey.

Fast forward to January 2018 when I nervously sent a personal email to several of my colleagues (which included Cristina, Matt, Tierney Sneed, and now TPM alums Allegra Kirkland and Sam Thielman) to officially, but unofficially, take our interest in staff solidarity to the next level.

“If you’re receiving this email, you’ve expressed interest in possibly unionizing to either me or one of our fellow colleagues,” I wrote. “I’ve made contact with WGA East this week to get the ball rolling on these conversations. They represent a number of digital media companies such as Gizmodo Media Group, Vice, HuffPost, and The Intercept. They’re well-versed on the needs of digital news orgs and I learned a lot from working with them as part of Fusion’s union drive in late 2016.”

From late January to early May, there were a trove of other emails, Google chats and drafts, a low-key after-work gathering at TPM staff’s favorite restaurant Aleo down the block from our NYC office (RIP!), several WGAE-run happy hours at The Magician in NYC’s Lower East Side and a series of after-work meetings held at WGAE’s headquarters (which included D.C. staffers looped in conference calls). This all led up to our official organization as an editorial union and a collective sigh of relief before embarking in a bit of collective handwringing over whether TPM founder Josh Marshall would voluntarily recognize our decision to unionize — a rarity in most digital media news shops.

It’s highly unusual for digital media unions to be voluntarily recognized by management with open arms. Take the Hearst Magazine staffers’ tumultuous path to unionization as an extreme example. In November 2019, staffers in the Hearst Corp.’s magazine division announced their intention to unionize, but management vehemently opposed voluntarily recognizing the union. Hearst management waged a legal battle at the National Labor Relations Board after staffers turned to the NLRB to hold an election affirming their intention to unionize. However, the NLRB rejected management’s argument in May, and proceeded with the vote in May. Last July, hundreds of writers and editors across Hearst Corp.’s magazine division overwhelmingly voted (241 to 83) to unionize under WGAE.

After TPM staffers in NYC and DC unanimously voted to unionize with WGAE, we collectively drafted a letter of intent to unionize that we would send to Josh in asking for union recognition.

On the morning of May 10, 2018, TPM staffers anxiously awaited Josh’s response to our letter of intent after I had sent it through our TPM Union email, which included cc’ing all the soon-to-be TPM union members.

“We believe unionizing is important both for us as employees and for TPM as an organization. As TPM continues to grow as a publication, we want a seat at the table to help form the company’s future,” the TPM union wrote in its letter of intent to Josh. “We would also like a formal system in place for openly addressing mutual concerns between management and staffers as a collective unit.”

In our letter to Josh, we stressed that our effort to unionize is “driven by the desire to make TPM an even better place to work” and that we see ourselves as part of the broader unionization movement across digital media publications — an industry wracked by “the constant disruption” that Josh himself has written about extensively and many of our employees have experienced firsthand.

We gave Josh three days to respond to our letter asking for union recognition. Josh responded four hours later:

Greetings, Everyone.

I’ve read your note and I’m happy to voluntarily recognize your bargaining unit/union. I look forward to working together on this moving forward. Let’s build on what we’ve already created together at TPM.

Our lawyer will reach out to WGA this afternoon to start the formal process of recognizing your union – paperwork, etc. I assume that will move rapidly.

Onward and upward.

Josh

And in solidarity, a TPM Union was officially born.

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