It's about one kilometre from 29 Washington Place in New York's Greenwich Village to 210 Elizabeth St., a walk-up on the edge of the Lower East Side, but there's a century of history that joins the two addresses. In 1911, 29 Washington Place was the site of one of the most notorious accidents in U.S. industrial history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 women who were unable to escape because the steel doors had been locked shut. The event was so horrific that it helped spur a widespread union movement. New York State rewrote its labour laws, created a Department of Labour and went on to lead the nation in formalizing a number of fundamental worker protections.
No such tragedy befell the work force at Gawker Media, the blog network based on Elizabeth Street, a part of the world where the horrors are more along the lines of, say, a barista who uses the wrong organic coffee beans for your morning pour-over. And yet last month, a reported 107 of 118 editorial employees at the company, which includes Gawker.com as well as Jezebel, Deadspin, Jalopnik and other sites, voted to join the Writers Guild of America – East, thereby becoming the first high-profile digital media outlet to unionize.
A few weeks later, 26 editorial employees at Salon.com followed suit, unanimously voting to join the same union.
The moves could hardly have been less contentious. In a series of media interviews, Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, which is privately held, insisted he was amenable to his employees forming a collective bargaining unit. "I'm cool with the idea of journalists, who are naturally a bit of a tribe, organizing themselves," he said on the Live channel of Huffington Post (an outlet that is not itself unionized). But, he added with a wry smile, he wished his employees luck, because – journalists being the prickly individualists that they are – he knew that it might be tough for their union to get them all on the same page.
Denton said that he would like to see other outlets take the same step, partly because then Gawker wouldn't be at a market disadvantage because it alone has the costs and regulatory burden of being a union shop. He said he would especially enjoy seeing workers at Vice organize, "simply because it would be interesting to see how Shane Smith," that company's frat-boyish co-founder, "would handle it. It would be good theatre." (Vice declined my request for a comment.)
So far, there is little noise about other outlets racing to join Gawker and Salon. (Here in Canada, about 20 workers at Canoe.ca organized earlier this year, but there's no indication that, say, the jocks at The Score are eager to join the movement.)
Much of the digital media universe began as a cottage industry, with bloggers writing and posting from the comfort of their own homes (and often while still in their own pyjamas). While it has exploded in both economic value and influence over the past decade and a half, it has retained some of its original ad-hoc startup structure: The hours are flexible, sure, but flexible hours often means being on call around the clock; you may be free to work at home, but that can lead to attenuated relationships with managers.
In the run-up to the Gawker vote, a writer at Wired noted the perks of some digital shops – free meals, stock options et cetera – and suggested that the "employee-centric workplaces of today's new media shops are a world apart from the dangerous manufacturing and textile jobs of the past. Workers today have it pretty good, journalists at Gawker included."
All true. Still, any journalist – at both legacy outlets, or working in what we used to call "new media" – knows that, these days, no matter what's in the union contract, the demands on our time and attention are only going to increase. We're all plugged in now, all the time.
The new media proletariat of the world may be uniting. But nobody's going to lose their digital chains any time soon.