How newsroom unions intervene when members get laid off

Newsrooms have been unionizing at a rapid pace in the past decade, especially since the pandemic began. But amid the wave of recent layoffs in the media sector, what are all these new unions doing now to help the hundreds of people that have been let go?

Unions can’t stop layoffs from happening — union members were recently laid off at Bustle Digital Group, Vox Media and The Washington Post. But unions can negotiate with management to try to mitigate the impact of a layoff, and to include contract provisions that offer union members equitable severance packages.

While each newsroom’s union contract differs, here are some of the ways unions represented by guilds in New York are addressing layoffs.

Pushing back

Fundamentally, newsroom unions can push back against layoffs announced by company management. 

“One of the toughest aspects of doing union work is to confront layoffs,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, which is currently fighting layoffs at BDG, Vox and MSNBC.

If someone is laid off, rather than wondering why they got fired and if their severance package is fair in comparison to others, unions can collectively request information from management to find out why the company is enacting a layoff and to see if there is room for negotiation on the number of people being let go and if they can apply to other positions at the company, Peterson said.

“We spend hours and hours sitting across the bargaining table to save as many jobs as we can,” he said.

Vox Media’s union, for example, tweeted on Wednesday a list of questions they collected from members on the impact of recent layoffs, after over 20 members were let go. The questions range, asking what the company has done to prevent layoffs, if executives have taken pay cuts, what measures are being taken to prevent further layoffs and details on future hiring plans.

For formed unions that have not yet reached an agreed-upon contract (such as NBC News), a layoff is considered a “condition of employment” and would need to be negotiated before enacted, said Todd Vachon, director of the Labor Education Action Research Network (LEARN) at Rutgers University. Unions will often discuss with management the financials of the company to determine how many people need to be let go and if an option like furloughs is viable.

“Union jobs are more secure because they are able to negotiate these creative ways to save jobs,” Vachon said.

The Washington Post, for example, did not allow employees who were laid off to apply for another job at the company for over a year, said a person familiar with the details. The newsroom union fought back, and now employees can apply for jobs immediately, they said. The Washington Post did not immediately return a request for comment.

Extended severance

Unions often negotiate with management to get extended severance and benefits packages for members, Peterson said.

This was a “big issue” in negotiations with Vox Media’s union and management, which ratified its second contract with WGA-East last June, Peterson said. Vox Media union’s new contract guarantees a minimum of 12 weeks’ severance, even for members who have worked there for less than a year, a WGA-East spokesperson said.

The Post’s Guild, for example, is negotiating over a “separation incentive program,” according to a document shared with Digiday, which would give eligible members from the newsroom who were let go on Jan. 24 additional severance based on how long they had worked at The Post.

A number of contracts at unions affiliated with the NewsGuild of New York also require companies to pay extra severance if they lay off employees out of seniority order (where junior employees get laid off first), a NewsGuild spokesperson said. Notice provisions are also in a number of NewsGuild union contracts, which are a required period of time that employees are given before their layoff goes into effect.

“It gives the union time to come up with a strategy to fight against the layoffs,” Vachon said.

Support and communication

Unions also serve as a support system for employees that have been let go.

“The guild gives us a chance to air our grievances” against management, said a recently-laid off journalist, who asked to remain anonymous. They called a recent meeting between their newsroom union and executives “cathartic.”

Nate Wilcox, an editorial manager at Vox Media who was let go on Jan. 20, said he was “grateful” for the editorial union. The “mutual support during the day of the layoffs was immensely helpful… It seems pretty invaluable to have the union support and solidarity through this experience,” he said.

Unions have also been actively sharing details — and their grievances — regarding recent layoffs with the public via social media. Peterson said this is a move to drive “public pressure.”

Unions “organize collectively — like a social movement — and go online and start to create a narrative of injustice and great public support for the workers and opposition to the company,” Vachon said.

BDG’s union tweeted on Thursday that it “vehemently condemns” the company’s firing of nearly 40 members and the shuttering of the Gawker site. The union claimed it’s the third round of layoffs in the past five months, effectively reducing the number of its members by half to around 100 workers.

After 20 employees were laid off, The Washington Post’s Guild tweeted on January 24: “We’ll continue to hold the company accountable and fight these seemingly arbitrary terminations in every way we can — including helping our colleagues find other jobs within the newsroom and securing the severance packages they deserve.”

This article has been updated to reflect the WGA-East is fighting layoffs at BDG, not BuzzFeed, which was previously stated.

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