Issue 200,  published March 19, 2019

The Union Push at Gimlet

In case you missed the emergency drop: last Wednesday, a consortium of employees within Gimlet Media’s 80-person-plus creative workforce announced that they are unionizing with the Writers’ Guild of America East. BuzzFeed News’ Caroline O’Donovan had the original story up that morning.

Key details to note:

  • Issues that the union hopes to focus on include, but are not limited to: “Consistent and transparent job descriptions and salary bands,” “Clear and fair policies around contractor employment,” “Equitable processes for protecting employees’ intellectual property,” and “Employee input in company decision-making.” You can find the full list on the union’s official announcement statement.
  • According to the announcement (posted on March 13), the union presents as being a coalition of producers, engineers, hosts, editors, and reporters. Sales, marketing, and management staff are not included in the union. O’Donovan reports that 75% of Gimlet employees have signed union cards in support of the push.
  • Rachel Ward, a member of the union organizing committee, told me last week that organizing efforts began in earnest around November, but was briefly put on pause when the committee learned about the possibility of a Spotify acquisition. Now that the acquisition has been completed, those efforts have resumed with a formal recognition request sent to management last Monday.
  • Ward also noted that Gimlet leadership has generally been responsive to requests for improvements in the past, and that the push to unionize is largely motivated by a desire to develop a formal system of protection and collective bargaining. They are currently hoping for voluntary recognition. Whether or not that happens is, obviously, the next thing we’re watching out for.

When reached for comment, a Gimlet spokesperson tells me: “We confirm we have received a formal notice from the WGAE union and plan to review. We have nothing further to report at this time.”

This development is historically significant in two ways. Firstly, this is the very first podcast-specific company to undergo this process. Which isn’t to say, by the way, that the Gimlet workforce will feature the first podcast workers to unionize — I imagine some folks at NPR and WNYC, both SAG-AFTRA shops, would have something to say about that. But by being the first pure podcast shop to unionize, the Gimlet Union and WGAE are going to be doing a lot of work from the ground up.

Secondly, I think this union push touches on the peculiarity of Spotify’s newly blended nature. With Gimlet under in its belt, the Swedish streaming giant is now both a technology and a media-editorial company, adding further unpredictability to how this might play out. We may be in a moment where digital media staffers across the country are increasingly moving to unionize, but as O’Donovan noted in her write-up: “Unionized tech workers are a rarity, though, which means Gimlet employees who are joining Spotify will be in a unique position in the industry.”

Quick gut check: so, it occurs to me that unions in America are tricky things to talk. The topic engenders tremendous emotion in all directions due to a myriad of historical and political reasons. Nevertheless, it’s worth being hands-on with this story, as it may become increasingly important over time. Now, I’m no expert in the subject, and I realize I’m wading into a generations-old debate that smolders with ancient fury, but I reckon that since we may be tracking this story over the longer term, I owe it to you to be transparent and lay out how I’m processing things. Feel free to disabuse me of any notions wherever you see fit. Also: to my European readers, yes, I know this is a very American story, but what can I say, some of us don’t live in places with strong traditions of, uh, structural worker empowerment.

First things first. It would be imprecise, in my view, to interpret this organizing campaign as a consortium of Gimlet worker seeking targeted remedies for specific problems or structural inequalities (e.g. cultivating a system of “perma-lancers,” etc. etc.) that company leadership had persistently failed to solve. It’s my understanding that Gimlet generally delivers above-average conditions and policies to its workers, and that it will continue to do so under the governance of its new Swedish overlords at Spotify. Plus, as organizing committee member Rachel Ward told me, Gimlet management has been fairly responsive to change requests in the past, having moved quickly on things like reducing dependencies on less-protected contractors.

But that isn’t really the point with this push. The point is this: by default, a workplace without a union is often operated on a cultural assumption that employees should “trust” management to look out for them — which, you know, isn’t always going to be the case. Things change, managers change, business contexts change; so too, then, may the relationship between a given generation of management and staffers. Establishing a union, then, is a step toward introducing more structural protections should business conditions put management in less forgiving positions. And given the volatile nature of the media industry these days, coupled with the general emerging nature of podcasting as a young business, it’s every bit as possible that the good times at Gimlet may turn on a dime real quick.

As Eric Eddings, co-host of The Nod, told BuzzFeed News: “A lot of the benefits we were hoping Gimlet would codify and put in a contract, Spotify offers those benefits and then some. They’re often a little more generous in that particular area, but the same concerns we had still exist… It is a complicated field, and it’s a new field, and it’s moving really, really fast. And so it became immediately clear to a lot of the employees that we need to have a voice in that process.”

At this point, it’s probably appropriate to go over a few arguments generally made against unions. To begin with, there’s a whole thing about unions  increasing the general cost of labor or the particular costs of letting someone go. Which, I suppose, is part of the point, though some would argue this gums up a management layer’s ability to move quickly on certain things like strategic shifts and resource reallocations. (It is here that we grapple with questions of cultural norms: to what extent should worker welfare be viewed as the point of — as opposed to impediments to — company sustainability?) There is also a secondary concern around compensation flattening as it pertains to media businesses built in some part on “stars”; in this case, hosts and senior creatives of more successful properties within the show portfolio. A quote from a publishing executive in a 2018 Digiday article on digital media unions embodies an argument I’ve heard quite a bit over the past week: “It helped raise the floor, but it flattens the compensation structure… for the star performers, there’s less money to reward them for doing well.” I imagine your mileage on this may vary based on whether your experience level, specific value to the company you work for, and the extent to which you believe a negotiation can result in a situation in which the floor is raised without compromising the ceiling. In any case, this is easily one of those things that can split union consortia apart.

Speaking of which, this leads us to an often-uttered scruple about the impacts of union organizing on morale: that is, the notion that unions can cultivate an “us vs. them” mentality leading to rifts in the relationship between staffers and management, and even within the workforce itself (as the process sometimes pits those who want to be in a union against those more circumspect). Again, your mileage on this may vary, and I imagine much of this depends on the specific dynamics of the workforce and the particular union-building journey of the organizing committee.

With all that laid down, here’s the thing I’m keeping top of mind: the process of successfully forming a union that works can be incredibly difficult. It takes building a strong coalition of workers (never straightforward even in the best of times, see: electoral politics); an organizing committee and an external union body that’s able to really understand, account for, and balance all the different needs of every subgroup within the coalition (therein lies the pure politics, as one could argue that, say, a big-time host or an union rep used to handling magazine writers might not fully grasp the needs of more junior audio producers, branded content workers, and veteran journalists); and the ability to develop actual leverage and political capital for effectively negotiating good concessions from management. Also, unions are complicated. Some treat their members well, others might not; it all depends on the nature of the people running the show. In any case, any single bad example of a union shouldn’t necessarily invalidate the value of unions as a structure, in perhaps much the same way one bad hospital shouldn’t invalidate hospitals as a system.

Anyway, even if Gimlet management does voluntarily recognize the union, remember that it’s only the beginning of this process. It can take a long time — years, even — to obtain a collective bargaining agreement, and pursuing that outcome while preserving the coalition can be a bruising experience. Also noteworthy: Gimlet is a remarkably peculiar company. Not just in terms of the whole Spotify ownership aspect of things (though, there is definitely that), but also for the fact that it’s a company whose workforce grew really, really quickly in large part due to venture capital and, furthermore, whose ranks appear to practice some fluidity with the divide between those who work on editorial and those who work on the advertising/branded content side. That divide matters to some shops more than others; it’s unclear to me to how that divide lands on the Gimlet workforce at this point in time.

As I mentioned in the emergency newsletter, how Gimlet management handles this situation will set the tone for the rest of the industry. Whether or not this effort succeeds, I’d just like to say: I agree with Eddings’ sentiment. All this podcast stuff is moving really, really fast. Winds being what they are, podcast activity will only continue to grow. There will be more companies, more money, more workforces, more dependencies, more potential mistakes. And there are ways all this industry activity can come at the expense of the staffers in the middle of it all. A high-profile unionization push like this, then, is also a crucial opportunity for the industry to take a beat and say, “Hey, let’s think this one through.”

Shouts to Gritty, patron saint of workers everywhere.