Editor’s note: Robert Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois and the director of the Labor Education Program in Chicago. Bruno, who recently testified on labor issues before the education and workforce committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the changing demographics of the labor movement.
The editorial staff of Gawker Media – a new media company that publishes the popular websites Deadspin, Gizmodo, Jezebel and Lifehacker – voted overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing with the Writer’s Guild of America East. Is that a positive sign for the future of organized labor?
I think so. You could argue that the total number of workers who voted to organize is relatively small; Gawker Media only employs 118 workers eligible to vote on unionizing. For organized labor to really move the needle, it would need to organize a million or more workers at the national level. But it’s certainly a good story, one that plays well in the news media – particularly because it’s about the news media itself, as well as the changing media landscape.
To some degree, it’s also about how the mainstream media covers labor and the labor movement. For example, in 2014, unions organized nearly 10,000 new workers in 160 National Labor Relations Board elections. The win rate was 65 percent. But no one reading any newspaper had any idea that happened. So Gawker is news, in part because it’s about news production. It’s also an important organizing case because young people get their news from news sites like Gawker, and young journalists also aspire to work at new-media organizations like Gawker. So it’s certainly an attractive company in the current media landscape, as well as an example of where unionization can grow.
Beyond the media value of the story, I also think it reflects a shift in demographics. The writers who voted to organize are highly educated young professionals. It’s old economy-new economy. Labor now encompasses a small corner of the new economy. So it really points to a new direction for the labor movement, as well as the movement itself adapting to new workplaces and the new way in which we work.
There’s no doubt that it’s an encouraging step for the labor movement writ large. Historically, when labor begins to organize workers in new industries, it suggests an area of growth. And if it can work in online media, maybe it can work for other forms of digital employment like information technology or computer programming.
The story is also remarkable for its conspicuous lack of conflict between workers and management. How do you explain the lack of labor strife?
It appears to have been a campaign in which the employer saw the benefits of having a unionized workforce. It helps when management views unionization as beneficial to work or as a partnership that strengthens a company’s position in the industry. And that’s too often overlooked: Not all organizing campaigns are contentious or unfold in a deeply hostile situation where workers and management are at loggerheads. But here, you actually have an employer recognizing that a collective bargaining agreement is consistent with wanting to put out a high-demand, quality product.
Does this suggest that younger workers view labor unions more positively than older workers?
Polling indicates that younger workers support unionization at higher rates than older workers, and that they view unions in a more positive light than older generations. And I think it’s because there is a lot more interest in activism and social justice in the younger generation. The AFL-CIO has been engaged in a multiyear initiative to address the interests of workers under age 30, and they found that there’s tremendous interest in social issues among younger workers.
But younger workers are still somewhat unsure that the institution of organized labor itself is open and welcoming to them. Labor also faces the challenge of how to develop young leaders, how to get them into the decision-making process, and how activism, social justice and labor unions can work together for mutual benefit.
It’s all part of an ongoing conversation that labor is having right now with younger workers. But what they’re finding is that when you explain the values of the labor movement to younger people, they match up really well with the kinds of social issues young people are focused on, such as reducing income inequality, creating new opportunities for people to move into the middle class, poverty and other public policy issues. So there is a zone of agreement where labor finds itself nicely aligned with the younger generation of workers. Now the question is, can the institution capitalize on those shared values and create even more opportunities for younger people. That remains to be seen.