People Magazine Digital Team Declares Intention to Form a Union (Exclusive)

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Ninety-six percent of the brand's digital group employees nationwide who are eligible have signed cards indicating their interest in organizing.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to lead to furloughs and layoffs at news organizations, People's digital team has announced its intention to form a union, joining its print division, which is already unionized. 

Ninety-six percent of People's digital group employees nationwide who are eligible have signed cards indicating their interest in forming a union with the NewsGuild, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. The proposed union would cover all 49 of People's digital employees, who work in New York, Los Angeles and remotely.

The print side of People unionized with the NewsGuild in the 1970s. No other Meredith Corp. brands are currently unionized under the organization, which also is the bargaining representative for The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Time magazine, among others. 

In a statement sent a few hours after the digital newsroom made its announcement, People owners Meredith Corp. affirmed its dedication to a safe, fair and equal workplace but said it would not voluntarily recognize the union. "We prefer to communicate directly with our employees. We believe in transparent, ongoing dialogue without a third party intervening," the statement read. "The media climate we’re operating in continues to rapidly evolve and change dramatically, and calls for a more creative, nimble and flexible operating culture. While we recognize the federal right of employees to join a union, we believe it is imperative that each employee exercise their federal right of a secret ballot election and, for this reason, it is our policy to not voluntarily recognize a union, as to do so would bypass our employees’ democratic right to vote."

According to current staffers who spoke with THR, the digital team is seeking to organize in part to achieve parity with print staffers, who receive somewhat separate severance benefits and guaranteed annual wage increases rather than what some described as incremental cost-of-living bumps. A representative for Meredith Corp. counters that the company's "merit-increase pool" for non-union employees has been three percent for some time, and says the Guild contract calls for a two percent annual increase.

Currently, digital employees say they have two weeks of severance per year employed, which Meredith Corp. says is guaranteed. Meredith adds that both the company's and the Guild's contracts "call for two weeks of severance for every year worked" and are capped at 52 weeks. Guild-contracted employees have a retraining allowance written into their contracts while non-union employees receive free outplacement services. "Just seeing the state of the industry in today's day and age, I thought it was kind of crazy to me that our print employees were in a union but the digital employees weren't protected," says senior audience engagement editor Ariel Nagi, who notes she is the mother of two small children. 

But the instability of news media jobs during the coronavirus crisis has expedited the unionization effort, which began about six months ago, employees added. Though publishers saw a major increase in digital traffic to their sites in the early weeks of the pandemic, advertising revenue that many relied upon to meet their bottom lines tanked as companies thin marketing budgets and shy away from shilling their products on pandemic-related stories. Over 100 publications have seen pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs since the crisis began, according to journalism nonprofit Poynter, even as many remain extremely busy with covering the pandemic.

Meredith itself announced on April 20 that it was going to implement a "series of operational cost-control measures," including reducing board of directors fees, executive and salaried employee salaries, production costs and other expenses.

Digital writer-reporter Alexia Fernandez says that the coronavirus pandemic "lit that fire a little bit more" to move ahead on organizing. "Staying at home and having our personal lives and professional lives come together in one space, we realized we just want to secure our incomes, we want to take care of our loved ones, and also we want to make sure that we're covered, cared for and protected and that we won't be laid off [suddenly] if something goes wrong," she says. A representative for Meredith Corp. counters that "Being part of a union does not protect you from being laid off any more than you would be protected if you weren’t in a union" and notes that recent unionized workplaces like Vox, New York Magazine and Buzzfeed recently saw wage reductions, furloughs and layoffs.

Prior to Meredith's statement, employees said they hoped the corporation would voluntarily recognize the union. "We all love our jobs and we love our company, and all we're asking is for them to meet us across the table, meet us at the middle and create that dialogue that we're all seeking," Fernandez says. "We're just hoping to get voluntary recognition. That would be amazing."

May 13, 11:27 a.m. Updated with Meredith Corp.'s statement.

May 14, 9:12 a.m. Updated with further Meredith Corp. statements.