BuzzFeed, the online outlet that matured from a purveyor of pop psychology quizzes to a global news force, is facing a grown-up challenge after staff in Canada and the United States declared their intention to unionize.
The move comes less than two weeks after the company announced it would cut 15 per cent of its global work force amid pressure to increase profitability.
After the company signalled it would not compensate laid-off workers for paid time off they had accrued but not taken, a letter from almost 600 staff members forced it to reverse course. That show of staff muscle – and simultaneous layoffs at other media outlets – helped re-energize organizing efforts at BuzzFeed that had been proceeding slowly over the past year.
“The layoffs themselves weren’t a surprise, but the communication around them made the entire situation feel more gruelling, on a company-wide, emotional level,” said Jane Lytvynenko, a breaking news reporter with BuzzFeed Canada who spoke with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.
“We’re at a point where media workers need to have a voice, and need to have the ability to have a conversation about what protecting their rights looks like.”
A majority of the 10 workers at BuzzFeed Canada filed Tuesday afternoon for union certification with the Canadian Media Guild, the largest guild of the media union CWA Canada.
BuzzFeed workers in the United States filed for certification on Tuesday with the NewsGuild of New York. Staff in Germany were also said to be organizing.
The action is the first large-scale organizing effort at BuzzFeed, which has about 1,200 employees around the world after the layoffs, making the company one of the last large digital operations to adopt the legacy institution of unionization, following workers at VICE Media and Huffington Post.
But BuzzFeed staff may face strong pushback from management. Founder Jonah Peretti has repeatedly told employees that unionization is not appropriate for their workplace. Last summer, the BuzzFeed U.K. newsroom operation voted overwhelmingly against organizing.
“Whatever the message was [to workers], clearly we’ve been undeterred,” Ms. Lytvynenko said of Mr. Peretti’s previous comments. “We just hope that he recognizes that this is done in good faith, that we all really enjoy working at BuzzFeed, and that there’s a benefit to management speaking with workers.”
In what might be a sign of the benighted state of the industry, rather than job security, Ms. Lytvynenko said that she and her co-workers might seek to negotiate such contract terms as “standardized severance, or required buyouts before layoffs.”
In a press release announcing the move, BuzzFeed Canada workers said that their small Toronto-based team – which has made a global name for itself covering the online spread of disinformation in recent years – had faced challenges “being isolated from the New York City mothership.”
The note cited “serious concerns regarding contract and freelance work, as well as equal distribution of benefits. We are striving to improve transparency, equity, diversity, and better working conditions across the company.”
In a statement published online late Tuesday, workers at the U.S. division of BuzzFeed wrote: “Unionizing is right for BuzzFeed News. Everything we are demanding is already in line with BuzzFeed’s values. We want to remain spry and competitive, but we reject the argument that we must choose between freelancing in a hellscape gig economy for vampirical platforms or submitting to the whims of a corporation that botches basic HR tasks. The economics of labour don’t vanish simply because we make content for the internet."