Last month, BuzzFeed laid off more than 220 employees, or 15 percent of its workforce. Today, employees at the company’s news division responded with the announcement that they planned to form a union.
“It’s not all fun and memes,” the organizing committee said in a statement. “Our staff has been organizing for several months, and we have legitimate grievances about unfair pay disparities, mismanaged pivots and layoffs, weak benefits, skyrocketing health insurance costs, diversity and more.”
More than 40 of those who lost their jobs in the recent layoff worked in the company’s bureaus in New York, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The cuts included all seven members of the BuzzFeed News national desk and its seven-person national security team.
BuzzFeed’s revenue grew by more than 15 percent in 2018, but that gain wasn’t enough to stave off the decision by its founder, Jonah Peretti, to reduce the number of employees. In an email to the staff before the firings, Peretti wrote, “Unfortunately, revenue growth by itself isn’t enough to be successful in the long run.”
Murmurs of a union started among company employees in 2015, when a group of staff members met with the NewsGuild of New York to discuss the issue of pay disparity, particularly in regards to women and employees of color. The group continued the effort last fall, when more than 50 employees participated in a meeting at the NewsGuild office.
The job losses have further motivated the organizers, according to Dominic Holden, a politics reporter at BuzzFeed News and a member of the organizing committee. Davey Alba, a senior technology reporter, said, by her own estimation, “about 90 percent” of eligible BuzzFeed employees supported the idea.
A BuzzFeed spokesman did not immediately comment on the organizing effort. Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, said in a statement: “We look forward to meeting with the organizers to discuss a way toward voluntarily recognizing their union.”
BuzzFeed workers have already had some success in challenging management. Days after the layoff, roughly 600 current and former employees signed an open letter posted on Medium that pushed Peretti and other executives to compensate the laid-off staff members for unused vacation and comp days as part of their exit packages.
It worked. Hours after the letter was published, Peretti notified the staff that he would grant the request.
So far, the union effort involves only employees at BuzzFeed News, the division of the company led by Smith.
If the company recognizes the union, a certification with the NewsGuild would follow, along with a negotiation of who would be covered under any contract.
If BuzzFeed doesn’t recognize the union, the organizers said they would hold a union election with an official from the National Labor Relations Board present to facilitate a secret ballot.
“I am confident in management,” Alba said. “I think that they will voluntarily recognize it.”
Workers at BuzzFeed News are the latest digital media employees to pursue a union effort. So far this year, Vice Media, affiliated with the Writers Guild of America, East, has expanded the number of employees counted as union members, and employees at Refinery29 organized a union, also under the Writers Guild banner.
Last year, employees at The New Yorker and New York magazine formed unions with the NewsGuild of New York. In both cases, management voluntarily recognized the organizing efforts.
According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, 30 digital news sites and newspapers have recognized unions since 2015. “In total, the number of unionized workers in internet publishing has risen 20-fold since 2010,” the report said.
Peretti is on the record opposing the idea. In 2015, he said, “I don’t think a union is right for BuzzFeed.”
In an interview with The New York Times in November, Peretti floated a solution to the volatile economic landscape now affecting digital media companies: a series of mergers among the top internet publishers, including Vice, Vox Media, Group Nine Media and Refinery29. Peretti reasoned that, if BuzzFeed and those companies were to unite, they would put themselves in a better position to negotiate favorable terms with powerful tech platforms like Facebook.
“He clearly understands the value of collective bargaining,” Holden said. “And we agree with him that collective action is critical to securing an equitable agreement.”