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Gawker votes to unionize, a first in digital media

Gawker Media founder and president Nick Denton now oversees the first unionized digital media company, and bucking the trend of many other company executives, he's just fine with it.

"Congratulations to you on a well-run campaign. And to the Gawker writers for a free discussion in our proudest tradition," Denton tweeted Thursday after the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO (WGAE), announced Gawker's editorial staff endorsed collective bargaining by a 3-to-1 margin.

Gawker's move to unionize "reflects concern that a lot of people in media have about the quality of jobs," Stephanie Luce, a professor of sociology and labor studies at City University of New York. The publisher of websites including Gawker, Jazebel, Deadspin, Gizmodo and Lifehacker has an editorial staff of 118 people, 107 of whom cast ballots, with 80 voting for and 27 voting against unionizing.

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Working conditions at Gawker are generally good, but real issues such as salary minimums and severance pay were still at play, said Hamilton Nolan, a senior editor at Gawker and driving force behind the move to unionize.

The vote has the media company bucking another trend: declining union membership, which hit a peak of 26.9 percent of the American workforce in 1953 and currently stands at 11.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gawker's move to unionize is also remarkable in that "the employer didn't oppose the unionization drive," Luce said. "A lot of the research we have in the field shows employer interference is a big impact."

Employers frequently engage in illegal activity to counter efforts to unionize, such as firing workers for organizing, said Luce, citing research that suggest companies break labor laws in as much as seven out of 10 attempts by workers to organize. "The laws are increasingly violated with little penalty. Workers say they want representation on the job, yet they do not feel empowered" to form a collective-bargaining unit.

"It's the first truly digital media company to organize," Lowell Peterson, executive director of the WGAE said. "Nick and his workforce have figured out a way to have a viable business strategy."

Nolan is hopeful other online entities follow in Gawker's footsteps: "Huffington Post, Vice, VOX, all these big media companies are valuable properties. The online media space is not people working in the basement anymore."

"As Gawker's writers have demonstrated, organizing in digital media is a real option," Peterson stated. "We are eager to negotiate a fair contract."

As cities including Los Angeles move to raise the minimum wage, Luce and Nolan say the labor movement could help address the nation's widening income inequality. "You can look at a chart of union membership and economic inequality in America, and they are highly correlated," Nolan said.

"A lot of evidence shows unions have had a enormous positive impact on stabilizing the economy," said Luce. "Even if you raise wages through laws, if you have union enforcement, it's much stronger. Workers are not afraid to complain, they know their rights."

In March, the International Monetary Fund released an analysis that found the decline in unionization not only reduced wages for moderate- and lower-income workers, but also "fed the rise in incomes at the top."

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