The Unions Will Win. We Just Have to Tell Their Stories.

Hamilton Nolan is a reporter for Splinter, the news site that is a spiritual successor to Gawker, the trailblazing New York media group that practically invented modern blogging in the early 2000s. Once it was shivved by the Hulk Hogan lawsuit, the company’s sites, minus the flagship Gawker.com, was sold to Univision, where it has been subject to endless management turmoil. Luckily, Nolan led a Gawker unionization campaign before the legal trouble began, ensuring their rights and paychecks throughout the last few years of corporate entropy.

In the years since, Nolan has continued to help organize New York new media outlets, working to bring some stability to what has become an industry defined by splashy entrances and catastrophic collapses. He’s also continued to write about politics and inequality in America, a very busy beat right now. We spoke about unionizing the media, how that might impact the way the industry covers unions and workers’ issues, and what the future of the movement looks like.

Gawker was the first digital outlet I heard of unionizing — how did it happen?

I was writing for Gawker and I wrote a lot about labor stuff and inequality. And every time I wrote about unions, you people in the comments would be like, “why don’t you guys unionize?” I always kind of blew it off because I didn’t think it was that important because we were white collar workers.

Over time I changed my thinking on that and came to the realization that basically everybody should organize, no matter who you are. So we ended up talking to the Writers Guild. The Writer’s Guild was interested in unionizing Vice, actually. And I was talking to one of the organizers there who was interested in organizing Vice and I was just like, why don’t you try organizing us? And it worked, is the short version.

Once people saw one place do it, I think the light bulb just went off everywhere and people were like, wow, that’s obviously a good idea for us. In quote-unquote old media, newspapers were unionized for decades and decades and decades, and that’s one reason why they were nice stable, middle-class jobs. And for new media, I think it’s part of the process of growing up as an industry, because people don’t want to be on that treadmill their whole lives, they just want to be able to have a career.

Another thing about being in the Writers Guild, it has TV writers and Hollywood writers. Working in Hollywood is a great job and the reason it’s a great job is because every last part of Hollywood has been unionized for many, many decades. It’s an industry that’s been forced to share the proceeds fairly among the people who work there because it’s a widely unionized industry and that’s hopefully where we can get to in our industry.

Gawker was still owned by Nick Denton at the time, right?

We actually signed our union contracts just before the Hulk Hogan verdict came down. So we signed a contract and then right after that we got hit with a big verdict that made us go bankrupt. So in that sense it was really good timing for us.

How was he about the union campaign? I imagine it was different than working somewhere like Univision, which owns Gizmodo now.

He was actually very blasé about it. We didn’t know what his reaction was gonna be, but then his reaction ended up being like, you guys do what you want to do. There was no anti-union campaign, he just said have a vote and if you vote for it, then you have a union. Like he was more concerned about getting some good blog posts out of it than running any kind of anti-union campaign. So to his credit, yes, he did not oppose us.

Meanwhile, Joe Ricketts, the owner of Gothamist and DNAinfo, shut those sites down entirely because they wanted to unionize, and Thrillist employees have been struggling for a year to have their union recognized. So the personal politics of employers is often so critical.

The law in America is that the workers get to decide if they have a union or not.The boss can try to scare you out of having a union, but they can’t tell you that you can’t have a union. Obviously the labor laws in America leave a lot to be desired, but fundamentally the workers have that on their side. So when you see a guy like Joe Ricketts, who’s a fucking ideological right-wing billionaire asshole, the only good thing about that is that most of the people who own the outlets in our industry are not Joe Ricketts. He was really the worst the worst-case scenario in terms of owner. Hopefully that won’t be replicated.

But even if they aren’t, they give people a tough time, as with Thrillist.

Our campaign was probably on the easier end of things. And some other places have been very easy, — TPM organized pretty recently. It really depends on how enlightened the boss is. The places that have enlightened bosses will say, “OK, you want to have a union, fine, let’s move ahead and let’s negotiate. “And then the less enlightened places will act like assholes. We’ve had pretty much the whole spectrum in our industry. We haven’t had any official strikes yet, although there’s a couple of places you can look at and say that the possibility on the horizon.

You mentioned Thrillist, they just had a walkout and Thrillist is a place that’s owned by the Lerer family, who are all multimillionaires. Ben Lerer is the son of a multimillionaire who is also a multimillionaire, whose dad gave him the outlet. One thing that unionization does as it moves across the industries is expose people that need to be exposed. At the end of it, the unions are going to win. It’s inevitable that the unions will win and everybody’s going to know exactly where everybody stands, who’s a hypocrite and who’s not.

I think unionization in the media can also change the way unions are seen nationwide, because it’ll change the way reporters and producers understand organized labor. In the debate between Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo, the moderator asked whether they supported public workers’ right to strike and maybe gum up the infrastructure, and I thought, shouldn’t the question be whether they’re willing to pay workers what they deserve?

I think that over the past several years that more places in the media had been unionizing, I think that a) you see more labor coverage in general. And b), I think that as a sort of side effect of all these media outlets unionizing is that you have all these reporters who are going through this process firsthand and it kind of builds up class consciousness among reporters basically. So it’s not that it’s giving a bias to reporters, but it’s sort of opening the eyes of a lot of people who work in the media and that’s something that will inevitably make their coverage better. Not just of unions specifically, but also all the history that is tied to labor and inequality, economics and all that stuff.

Ben Smith from BuzzFeed [full disclosure: I used to work at BuzzFeed] wrote a story this week about how he thinks it’s time for the end of horse race journalism. How do you think journalists have handled class issues?

It’s definitely been a problem for a long time and all due respect to Ben Smith, he didn’t invent horse race journalism. Horse race coverage of politics has been a problem in the media for a long time and it’s tied to the fact that big-time journalism is not a very diverse field, it’s not racially diverse. It’s not economically diverse. It’s not diverse. Those newsrooms tend to not look like America, right? And that’s a big problem and it affects the coverage. When you have newsrooms that are full of people who are Ivy Leaguers, it’s much easier to cover politics in that horse race style because there’s no personal stake. There’s not a personal stake in politics, so politics doesn’t get covered as something that’s very serious and affects people’s lives in a serious way.

I do think that that having some personal experience with issues like labor organizing is going to help reporters and also think that with every single place in our industry that has organized, you know, if you sit in those meetings and listen to them talk about what the issues are, diversity is an issue at every single place.  The staffs want more diversity, all types of diversity. I think in the long-term unions are going to be one of the strongest factors that’s going to drive diversity in the media.

As our industry turns more toward freelance, it also becomes easier to empathize with the economic struggle.

The whole structure of getting a job in journalism is ridiculous. The expectation that people are going to have internships and all that, that stuff forces poor people out of the industry. Paying incredibly low salaries, so that they can’t pay the rent in New York, forces poor people out of journalism because they cannot afford to in the industry. One thing we got in our union contract is a minimum wage for our company. You cannot be paid less than $50k if you work for us. Living wages for these jobs is, is absolutely tied to diversity because people aren’t independently wealthy need to be paid enough to work in this industry.

Ballot initiatives: Secrets of the most successful progressive strategy in years

Election night 2016 was a nightmare for progressives (and really most Americans), but there was one somewhat surprising and very promising bright spot. Ballot measures pushed by progressive groups were approved by huge margins by voters across the country, resulting in increased minimum wages, expanded Medicaid, and other big policy victories in both blue and red states.

Amazing what happens when the issues are clear and voters are offered a direct chance to improve their lives.

This year, with Republicans dominating government on all level, progressive groups have doubled down on direct democracy to push or fix important policies that corrupt conservatives (and to be fair, many Democrats) have either ignored or openly and cravenly blocked from passing. And as we saw in the massive victory for repealing the toxic “right to work for less” law in Missouri, these are very popular and winnable campaigns.

We’ve covered the red state progressive activists that have gathered enough signatures to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot in Montana, Idaho, and Utah, and there are also a slate of people-powered initiatives that would end gerrymandering in states like Michigan, loosen marijuana laws in Missouri, and fix housing issues in California.  To learn more about the upcoming voter initiatives, Progressives Everywhere spoke with Donna De La Cruz, the communications director for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which helps progressives nationwide launch and strategize direct democracy.

How did a state like Missouri, which is becoming a very red state, vote so overwhelmingly for “right to work” repeal?

For some people just certain issues sort of transcend parties. I think minimum wage is one. With something like the measure in Missouri to repeal the “right to work” law, if it’s messaged right and the public is educated correctly, that makes all the difference.

CLICK HERE to donate to campaigns working hard to pass progressive ballot initiatives!

Why don’t Democrats start campaigning on obviously popular issues? If they see so many people voting to increase the minimum wage, why not champion that, use that language?

Some lawmakers definitely see how powerful ballot measures are. But I think mostly with candidates they don’t really don’t focus on the issues until they see enough polling to see where it’s going to throw their support behind it, which is, which is too bad. They just sort of wait to see how the winds are gonna blow. But I think there are just some initiatives that people just really feel that they want and need. I think the one thing about ballot initiatives is that they’re often not thought of as being partisan.

Definitely right to work was partisan, but things like minimum wage, a lot of people just see it as extra money in their paychecks and not having all the money go to big corporations.

So what does BISC do, as a centralized strategy operation for progressive ballot measures?

We track new track statewide initiatives all year long and we update the list every two weeks. We do a lot of trainings where one of our staffers will go and talk to a group, working them through how the process works. The ballot process works differently in every state.

Sometimes it has to be done through a constitutional amendment. Sometimes you can collect signatures. Sometimes it has to be referred by the legislature. So there are all these different methods and people have to know exactly what the process is. If it’s collecting signatures, they need to know just how many they’re going to need and how many they need from different counties, because you can’t get all the signatures from one area. It’s got to be statewide.

You need to know the cost, like how much manpower do you think you’re going to need? It’s making sure that they are aware that this is not something that can happen quickly in most cases. You have to try to figure out what kind of support you have for it. To see if you can win, but even before you can win, if you can even collect enough signatures to start really campaigning. So there’s a lot of those. We do a lot of those, you know, we do a lot of educational trainings along those lines.

CLICK HERE to donate to campaigns working hard to pass progressive ballot initiatives!

I know that there have been more lawsuits over ballot measures and lawmakers, especially in GOP states, often don’t comply — see Maine and Medicaid — or repeal the measures, right?

Some states are fighting back to keep measures off ballots. North Carolina [Republicans are trying to trick voters into curtailing voting rights] and Michigan’s minimum wage initiative is in court. In Massachusetts, there’s a ballot measure to overturn the state’s anti-discrimination law against transgender people. Even in DC, it’s an example of a pretty heavily Democratic City Council that is trying to overturn a ballot measure that was approved in June during the primary election that would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. It passed pretty overwhelmingly, but the DC City Council has introduced legislation that would undo it.

Some of these measures are launched by citizens, but there are often big campaigns around them, like in Missouri. What kind of bigger groups have you seen organizing these measures?

There are a couple of climate groups out west that we’re really not a part of, like NextGen. The Restaurant Opportunities group is active in a couple of states to raise the minimum wage. Definitely some unions support paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage as well. It’s a huge variety of groups. There are some really small groups. There’s a group in Florida, we’re really helping them with restoring the right to vote for former felons. That’s Second Chances Florida. They were formed solely to get this amendment on the ballot and then get it passed in Florida.

What kind of legwork does it take to get something on the ballot? How long does it usually take?

I’ll just give you an example. In Washington state, there’s an initiative on the ballot to tax polluters who emit fossil fuels and then they would use that money for clean jobs. That has been discussed for at least at least a couple of years before they even tried to put it on the ballot. I know that it was still being discussed like two years ago, just trying to generate the support and trying to figure out the educational campaign for that. Because that’s a tough one because the average citizen probably never even thinks about a carbon tax.

And I know that with the Florida initiative, you take some polls just to see like what the sentiment is among the residents, whether or not people do agree that ex-felons should be given the right to vote. So it’s a lot of education and just research first.

CLICK HERE to donate to campaigns working hard to pass progressive ballot initiatives!

Florida has a fully Republican state government. Let’s say Democrats flip a lot of legislatures and governorships this year and win power in a lot more states. How do you see ballot measures playing a role in an environment that’s more friendly to the issues they are working to pass?

I would definitely hope that it would be seen as a good leverage tool for citizens. The teachers in Arizona that went on strike earlier this year to get a raise in pay have really banded together to get an education measure on the ballot that would tax the wealthiest people in Arizona and use that money to pay for education. I know that banding together to raise their own pay gave them this idea. But it has not been popular at all. It just survived a legal challenge this week.

So getting all those signatures to get on the ballot definitely doesn’t always mean it’s super-popular or is going to pass.

I think sometimes just because it’s on the ballot, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done. There’s a measure on the Ohio ballot that would affect nonviolent drug offenders and I think that they barely got the number of signatures that they needed to get to get on the ballot. So I think that there’s still a lot of work there.

And people think that ballot measures are just really poorly worded, which they are, and the groups don’t write the ballot language. It’s the secretary of state’s offices and sometimes lawmakers start chiming in. So sometimes it makes no sense, so even if it’s really popular and on the ballot, it can be confusing to people and it’s always the last item on a ballot. So people might have supported it had they known it or if it had a different title or was just easier to read.

CLICK HERE to donate to campaigns working hard to pass progressive ballot initiatives!

What are the kinds of ballot measures you’re seeing the most this year?

Over the last year or two, the minimum wage has still been up there, but this year, we’re seeing a lot of gerrymandering initiatives. In most instances, redistricting is only done every 10 years, so it’s really interesting to see the number of gerrymandering initiatives on there to take the power away from partisan groups and give them to an independent commission. I think that’s a really interesting one to watch.

There’s not as much paid sick leave on the ballot statewide as I think people would have hoped. And I think some people are surprised that there’s not very many gun control measures on the ballot, especially given the shooting at the high school in Florida. Our take is that it was just too quick, there wasn’t enough time for people for people to get the measures on the ballot this year.

People have been really pressuring legislators on guns — maybe they don’t realize that ballot measures can be used for even that issue.

I think more people are definitely seeing the usefulness of ballot measures. I just think sometimes it’s a daunting task, especially if we want to do it statewide. But I think it’s all about educating people and getting the word out.

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Uber, but for being able to pay the rent

Here in New York, Mayor de Blasio signed major legislation that reigns in the unchecked growth of ride-hailing apps, which have latched on to American infrastructure and workers like a greedy, slickly designed succubus. The law freezes the number of new Uber and Lyft drivers for a year while the city studies the effects of the massive increase in drivers on the road — there are nearly 40,000 more “cab” drivers since 2015, and at any given time, 40% of those on the road do not have any passengers.

The flood of drivers with nothing to do has cut deeply into the earnings of traditional cab drivers, and Uber and Lyft drivers have fared no better, earning about $11 an hour thanks to the flood of drivers. Because they’re still considered independent contractors, they get no benefits from Uber or Lyft, either. So the new law also establishes a minimum wage for the drivers in the city, which will hopefully help the cycle of false hope, poverty, and all too often, suicide, which has become an epidemic here.

I’m not a cab driver, but the Uber problem is not limited to the livery industry. The “Uber for” construct of startup pitches became so ubiquitous a few years ago that it became a punchline, but the impact has been real. As a writer, even with a good full-time job, I am always looking for ways to supplement my income, largely to pay off medical bills. (I’ve had four heart surgeries and even with insurance, medicine costs hundreds a month and a quick annual checkup runs $500. Donate to my Patreon here?) I often look to pick up freelance work, whether it’s journalism unrelated to my day job or copywriting.

The latter is kind of a murky industry, but it has moved more and more towards platforms like Upwork, which function as a mass job posting board. Which would be fine, but the mechanics of the thing and the desperation of writers has led to an incredible plunge in payment rates — we are talking a dollar for a thousand words. It’s brutal. It feels more and more like this is the future — I’ve seen a lot of friends laid off from journalism jobs over the last few years. The uptick in digital media unionization at least gives me some hope. Right now editorial employees from Thrillist, the network of travel and culture sites, are striking after a year of management refusal to recognize and negotiate with their union.

The hard part is that you can’t blame the Upwork writers, just as you can’t blame the drivers. People don’t work for those rates for fun. And you can’t even blame many of the very small businesses and individuals that hire writers on the cheap — times are tight; wages after inflation are down. In the same way, you can’t blame people who take Uber and Lyft — I’d be a real hypocrite if I did that, since I’ve used both myself, especially when the subways were down. Regulating, not eliminating, the platforms is key, so that convenience doesn’t destroy sustenance.

The real solution to the Uber problem would be a more reliable mass transit system, but as New Yorkers and anyone who follows us on Twitter know, that does not appear imminent. It’s one of the big issues animating state elections this fall, which we’ve covered heavily here.

But those frustrating infrastructure battles aside, this really is a momentous occasion. Silicon Valley employs fleets of lobbyists and Uber has especially leaned into trying to shape public policy and opinion. Their ads plaster the subways and they bombard the media with AstroTurf campaigns. It has largely avoided regulation — and been able to get the few laws that have passed repealed — but their money and aggression did not work in New York.

Instead, defiant unions and progressive activists won the day. It’s a landmark event, and already lawmakers elsewhere are taking notice, with aldermen in Chicago also now suggesting a minimum wage for drivers.

Regulating the gig and sharing economy is a national priority for progressives, even if they aren’t linked on it the way Medicare for All has become a unified cause. And without that urgency, it’s an uphill climb. The GOP hates regulation already and states are largely controlled by Republicans. Should the midterm elections go our way, we could see a lot more of these kinds of laws, though even a lot of Democrats are sympathetic to tech interests, even as scrappy startups become international behemoths without much interest in the public good.

This New York Times piece is a great look at the fight Facebook and other internet monopolies put up against even a modest set of regulations. Airbnb is also an aggressive lobbying force, waging rhetorical and financial war against any legislator that dares suggest perhaps it’s not a great idea to have every home available for rent. Neighborhoods are being transformed and housing is at a premium thanks to gentrification, and landlords are frequently kicking people out of their homes in order to turn them into pseudo-hotel rooms. Rents go up with every Airbnb unit; one study found that “New York City renters had to pay an additional $616 million in 2016 due to price pressures created by Airbnb.”

Again, it’s complicated, because Airbnb does make things easier for travelers, and it’s nice side income for some people. But it’s the exploitation that makes it troublesome. Every good idea comes with bad actors who try to take advantage of the system.