Al Jazeera America digital moves to unionize


Al Jazeera America's digital team announced a petition to unionize.

Al Jazeera America’s digital team announced a petition to unionize.

By Kathryn Thomson

A majority of the 50-person digital team at Al Jazeera America’s Garment District headquarters announced their petition to unionize on Sept. 3, joining the growing number of digital media companies electing to do so. AJAM employees want to establish an equitable pay scale and clarify both job descriptions and performance evaluation criteria.

Since Gawker’s unionization of its 120-member newsroom in June, Salon, the Guardian US, Vice and now AJAM have announced their intentions to follow suit, reflecting an increasingly positive attitude toward unions. According to a Gallup poll released in August, union approval has increased five percentage points in the past year.

Employees at AJAM Digital presented their proposal to management internally on Aug. 28, requesting voluntary recognition. The National Labor Relations Board’s laws require either voluntary agreement from an employer or a formal vote within two to three weeks of submission of a petition signed by a minimum of 30 percent of employees.

While members of AJAM’s digital team are not allowed to disclose the percentage of colleagues who signed the petition, AJAM digital staff writer Tammy Kim said it was an “overwhelming majority.”

When AJAM Digital did not respond to the initial request, employees decided to publicize their proposal.   “Once we realized we weren’t getting a quick response, we wanted to get it out there and our Al Jazeera members felt more comfortable too knowing it was out there,” said Peter Szeleky, President of the NewsGuild of New York, the Midtown-based union representing AJAM’s employees’ efforts.

While digital-media union efforts at other companies earlier this summer resulted in a joint statement between employees and managements, AJAM’s announcement was on behalf of the employees only,  and that management had yet to respond. Few details of the proposition have been made public while negotiations are underway.

Al Jazeera America was founded two years ago in Manhattan and is a division of the Al Jazeera Media Network, which is funded by the royal family of Qatar. Since its inception, AJAM has undergone turbulent changes in management, which were first brought to the public’s attention after a New York Times report on the company’s former leader, Ehab Al Shihabi.

Gregg Levine, Digital News Editor at AJAM, is optimistic that the current management will approve the proposal. “They gave us no indication either way, it was very neutral. But we’re hoping they’ll realize the simplest step is recognizing us and then letting us all get back to work,” he said.

Bill O’Meara, recently retired president of the NewsGuild, believes the growing number of unionized media companies stems from the realization that digital journalists are no different than legacy media reporters. “I coined the term ‘platform agnostic’ and digital journalists are still creating content so they should be compensated the same for it,” said O’Meara. “Platform agnostic” also addresses the theme of the NewsGuild’s recent name change from the Newspaper Guild to simply the NewsGuild; even the oldest American newspapers are now producing digital content and the lines between media are increasingly blurred.

Journalists at AJAM began exploring union organization months before Gawker’s June initiative. “This is something that has been going on for many months at AJAM and we were extremely excited when Gawker happened and organizing was suddenly on everyone else’s mind too,” said AJAM’s Kim.

But Gawker’s move awakened other media companies to the possibility. Elias Isquith of Salon Media admits he was unaware that a union was an option in his workplace before Gawker’s announcement. “Gawker really opened the door and people said ‘this is something we can do?’”

Isquith says that digitization of news may provide fluidity for journalists, but at a cost in terms of structure, which is frustrating for those seeking stability and job security. “Everyone tends to think of journalists as over-educated and not as people who would work in an exploitative work environment,” he said. Because digital media traditionally involve less bureaucracy, “unions really provide structure, rules and clarity.”

Not all companies are as enthusiastic as the ones that have already signed on. The same industry flexibility Isquith speaks of makes Buzzfeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti uneasy. Peretti responded negatively last month to a question about unions from one of Buzzfeed’s 1200 employees, saying that he considers the company to be more like a tech startup than a news organization so “that actually wouldn’t be very good for employees at Buzzfeed.”

NYC Central Labor Council’s Sean Mackell sees Peretti’s comment as a red flag. The NYCCLC, which represents over 400 unions in Manhattan, is under direction of the largest national labor federation, AFL-CIO. “I think it’s very telling that if a CEO says unionization isn’t good and he’s resistant, then it usually means the workers there could benefit from it the most,” said Mackell.

O’Meara interpreted Peretti’s statement differently, and said that the CEO’s words may not have reflected his personal views. “Peretti was probably making an excuse because of pressure from investors to take that position. They might feel a union would cramp their ability to make a profit.”

Representatives from Buzzfeed declined to comment.