Union drive gains momentum in online media

NEW YORK - The organized labor movement in the U.S. has been losing ground for decades, but it is on the move in parts of the publishing world.

The editorial staff of Salon.com, a left-leaning provider of online news and other content, said Thursday that they have voted to unionize and will ask the media company's management to recognize the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE). The organizing drive at one of America's oldest and most widely read political websites comes just weeks after editorial workers at Gawker voted to be represented by WGAE, making it the first digital media outfit to unionize.

"Salon has, from its very inception, proudly embraced progressive values and a commitment to our workers and to labor," David Daley, Salon's editor-in-chief, told CBS MoneyWatch in an email. "We look forward to discussing this initiative with the editorial staff and learning more about their objectives and goals."

Salon's staff looking for WGAE representation includes writers and editors.

"We are doing this because we believe in our publication and want it to be successful," wrote the 26-member Salon editorial staff in a letter to Salon management. "We're especially proud to work for a media organization that has championed progressive values for 20 years."

Lowell Peterson, executive director of WGAE, said he expects Salon's leadership to accede to worker wishes to join the union. "Management has not said no," he said, noting that under the National Labor Relations Act there is no deadline for the company to respond to the staff's petition.

Since launching in 1995, Salon has carved out an important place as a repository of liberal reportage and commentary, drawing more than 19 million monthly users and serving as a professional launching pad for a slew of journalists who have gone on to successful media careers.

But Salon's cultural impact has never been matched by its financial performance, and the site's parent company, the publicly traded Salon Media Group (SLNM), has struggled to build a business. For the 12 months ending March 31, Salon Media recorded a net loss of $3.9 million, while revenue for the period fell 18 percent to $4.9 million. As of Thursday the company's stock, which trades over the counter, was down to 13 cents a share.

The labor campaigns at Salon and Gawker, another high-profile digital media publisher, comes at a time when the percentage of U.S. workers who are represented by a union nationwide has dropped to 11 percent, down from roughly 27 percent in 1953.

"What we are seeing in the maturation of digital media outlets, and with the Gawker victory people working in that space are starting to get the confidence that having a collective voice will help them in the long run," Petersen said.

On any given day much of Salon's editorial content comes from a large number of freelancers who work as "1099s," which for tax purposes are defined as independent contractors rather than employees. For years, the National Writers Union has tried to organize freelancers with the aim of developing a base pay-scale.

"Right now we don't have a freelance contract anywhere because it would be considered as illegal price-fixing as long as these writers are considered independent contractors," Larry Goldbetter, president of the NWU told CBS MoneyWatch. "But we welcome any step towards unionization as positive."

Editor's Note: CBS MoneyWatch contributor Robert Hennelly also writes for Salon.com.