Top leadership at the progressive news network The Young Turks held an all-staff meeting at its office in Culver City, California, on Feb. 12. The regularly scheduled gathering was supposed to deal with personnel matters, but instead the focus turned to the staff’s nascent union campaign, which had just gone public.
Earlier that day, a Twitter handle claiming to represent TYT employees had announced on the social media platform their intention to form a union. In the staff meeting, the network’s co-founder and influential host, Cenk Uygur, urged employees not to do so, arguing that a union does not belong at a small, independent outlet like TYT, according to two workers who were present. He said if there had been a union at the network it would not have grown the way it has.
His talk ― at times emotional, the staffers said, with Uygur throwing his papers to the ground at one point, and chastising an employee ― seemed to contradict the progressive, worker-first ethos that TYT broadcasts to its millions of lefty followers. Jack Gerard, who is acting as the company’s chief operating officer as Uygur runs for Congress in California, told the staff they were not discouraging unionization.
But the message from Uygur was clear ― and, to at least some staffers, discouraging.
“We generally feel disappointed, but unshaken,” said one staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “We feel it’s the right thing to do because of what TYT values.”
In an interview with HuffPost, Uygur said he is a strong supporter of unions, especially at large corporations that aren’t sharing profits with their workers. But he said he worries a unionized workforce would bring new legal and bureaucratic costs that TYT can’t sustain. The network has a growing subscription base and has raised venture capital money, but faces many of the same headwinds as other online media dealing with the collapse of ad revenue.
“The reality is we’re in a precarious position. We’re in a digital media landscape where almost no one makes money or is sustainable.”
“The reality is we’re in a precarious position,” Uygur said. “We’re in a digital media landscape where almost no one makes money or is sustainable.”
He added, “For a smaller digital media company, those are absolutely real considerations. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a union. Everyone should know the full context ... If folks say they don’t believe we’re in a precarious position, OK. And that’s their decision to make.”
Uygur said he was caught off guard by the union effort that appeared on Twitter the day of the meeting, and that it was so early in the process he wasn’t sure if it was real or if he was “being punked.” He acknowledged that he threw papers in the meeting ― in a downward direction, not toward anyone, he noted ― and that he reprimanded an employee whom he believed to be smiling. According to staffers, Ugyer said it would be funny “later” — an ominous statement they found unsettling. He told HuffPost it wasn’t meant to be a threat.
“The person smiling seemed to be openly mocking the idea that the company might not survive after 18 years. And we put all this blood, sweat and tears into it,” he said. “I don’t find the idea of us going down funny.”
Media has become fertile ground for union organizing in recent years, with workers at both old, legacy newspapers and newer, web-only outlets seeking the protections of a collective bargaining agreement. The union push has made for some awkwardness at organizations with liberal reputations, where management may resist collective bargaining despite overseeing labor-friendly coverage.
The campaign at TYT comes with another wrinkle: Uygur’s attempt to fill the Congressional seat vacated by former Rep. Katie Hill, a Democrat who resigned in October amid an ethics probe into her relationship with a staffer. Uygur is running to the left in the Democratic primary. The front-runner, Christy Smith, a California assemblywoman, generally has the backing of the party establishment and many labor unions.
As the union spat became more public, Uygur suggested on Twitter that the union campaign was politically motivated by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union trying to organize TYT employees. IATSE endorsed Smith in the race. But staffers said their first organizing discussions date back more than two years, and their recent attempt to round up support began shortly before Uygur declared his candidacy ― a timeline confirmed by a union organizer.
IATSE has asked TYT management to voluntarily recognize the union through “card check,” saying a clear majority of staffers who would be represented have signed union cards. That has often been the course at liberal media organizations, so staff can avoid the pressures of a union election. IATSE would represent the production and post-production staff ― about a quarter of the company’s 65-employee workforce.
But TYT management has proposed having the workers vote in a secret-ballot election to be administered by a third party, outside the National Labor Relations Board. Management has also disputed the union’s proposed bargaining unit, saying some of the employees should be considered managers.
Uygur told HuffPost he wants a secret-ballot election because a few employees told him after the meeting that they do not support a union ― “some, not all,” he said.
“Am I supposed to say, ‘I don’t care what you want?’” he said. “That’s crazy.”
In recent cases where liberal outlets have resisted a union drive, such as at Slate, employees have typically ended up unionizing anyway, either through an election or a public pressure campaign that wears down the employer. Uygur acknowledged his position on the union poses a political problem in his Congressional bid ― indeed, Smith has already dinged him for it ― but said he wants staff to know the potential downsides of unionizing.
“Look, at the end of the day, my opinion on it is irrelevant,” he said. “It’s the employees who get to decide and who should decide.”
The TYT staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity described support for the union as “a solid majority,” and said it hasn’t frayed despite the turmoil of the past week and a half. The staffer also said colleagues are insistent on the company recognizing the union without a secret-ballot election, and including all the staff they believe should be part of it. They expected plenty of disagreements in bargaining a contract, but not a fight over the formation of the union.
“We love the company,” the staffer said. “We’re just getting the company to live by its principles.”