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Journalists at Thrillist vote to strike for “livable salaries”

Journalists at digital media startups are unionizing. The staff at Thrillist is the first to authorize a strike.

Group Nine Media CEO Ben Lerer at a TechCrunch event in Manhattan.
Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Nearly the entire editorial staff at the food and travel website site Thrillist voted to authorize a strike on Monday, the first known work stoppage at a digital media startup.

About 91 percent of Thrillist union members voted in favor of a walkout on Monday to express frustration over their efforts to negotiate their first union contract with Thrillist’s parent company, Group Nine Media. Employees at the New York-based food and culture website, owned by Ben Lerer, have been fighting to nail down a union contract for about a year. The site’s 60-plus editorial staffers voted to unionize in February 2017 and have faced aggressive anti-union messaging from the company’s managers, according to the union’s bargaining committee.

Lerer launched Thrillist in 2005 as a popular New York lifestyle newsletter, and it has since morphed into a broader culture and travel website under the Group Nine Media portfolio, which includes digital media brands such as the Dodo and NowThis. Group Nine Media was valued at nearly $600 million in 2017.

On Monday, after a recent round of unproductive contract negotiations, union members decided to take more drastic measures. Instead of showing up for work, they went to the New York offices of the Writers Guild of America East, which represents the bargaining unit. (Full disclosure: WGA East also represents the Vox Media union, which has been involved in contract negotiations with Vox Media managers since April.) That’s when Thrillist staff voted to authorize the strike.

“Our negotiations have been ongoing for more than a year, and suffice to say, our patience in attempting to impress the importance of key issues — including livable salary minimums and fair annual increases — has dwindled. The unit will not agree to the scant, inadequate economic terms Group Nine management has put on the table,” the union said in a statement shared on Twitter Monday.

On Tuesday, Thrillist employees had returned to work, but kept the possibility of another work stoppage on the table.

A spokesman for Group Nine Media said that the company has been negotiating with the bargaining unit in good faith and supports the employees’ decision to unionize.

“We are absolutely committed to the growth and success of all of our employees and we look forward to resolving any outstanding issues and finalizing a contract at the negotiating table as soon as they are ready,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Vox.

A strike would be historic, in a sense

The labor movement has made a bit of a comeback in the past year, particularly with the massive teacher strikes that spread from West Virginia to Arizona. But what makes the Thrillist vote remarkable is that it represents the first work stoppage in a relatively new industry, with a large millennial workforce and no history of unionizing to draw from.

Going on strike is a risk for workers. Under federal law, unionized workers in the private sector have a right to strike over contract negotiations, but they could lose their jobs if their employer hires qualified workers to replace them (if no one is hired, the employer must let the striking worker return).

While unions have been common in legacy print newsrooms, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, they are only starting gain momentum at digital media companies. The first digital journalism staff to unionize was Gawker Media in 2015. Since then, workers at online outlets such as the Huffington Post, Vice and Vox Media have done the same. These unionizing efforts have faced varying degrees of resistance from company executives, but Thrillist staffers say they have faced a particularly harsh response.

The backstory

Group Nine Media founder and CEO Ben Lerer was not thrilled when Thrillist staff announced in February 2017 that 80 percent of the editorial team had signed union cards. He soon organized a meeting with the staff, according to Deadspin:

After saying how much he valued employees, he said that “what I am worried about is the effect the union would have on our unique culture” — particularly on the “flexibility” and “entrepreneurial” nature of the company. “It’s presumably no secret to all of you that I’m a staunch progressive, as I know many of you likely are,” Lerer said. “I have a deep respect for unions; my wife was a teacher for many years and I recognize the important role they play for protecting workers in more entrenched industries and businesses that do not offer their employees the new types of personal career growth that we traditionally have.”

Lerer’s concerns didn’t dissuade workers, and the vast majority voted to unionize a month later. But apparently, negotiations over the first contract have not been going well.

“We had just ended a series of negotiations in July, and we have nothing scheduled in August, and I don’t think we have anything on the books for September,” entertainment editor Leanne Butkovic told Splinter on Monday. The article was later updated with news that another round of negotiations is set for September.

Workers have also been upset that the company hired a notoriously anti-union law firm, Proskauer Rose LLP, to get involved in the bargaining efforts. The labor law firm has been known to advise companies on how to hire replacement workers, known as “scabs,” which could lead striking workers to lose their jobs.

Thrillist employees decided not to show up for work on Monday, though that wasn’t an official union strike. Instead, they voted to authorize a strike if contract negotiations don’t move forward. But the one-day work stoppage created enough at a stir within the newsroom. On Monday, union members complained on Twitter that managers had blocked them from accessing their company email accounts and from logging in to Slack, the popular online work messaging platform:

According to Splinter, management has since reactivated their online access, but that didn’t stop staff from voting for an official strike. One union member said it was more than a fight for higher wages:

Clarification: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Thrillist workers had gone on strike. It was a one-day work stoppage that led union members to vote to authorize a strike if needed.