Pop-Up Magazine Union Disputes Legality of Layoffs After Emerson Collective Cuts Ties

Douglas McGray California Sunday Magazine
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Pop-Up Magazine CEO and co-founder Douglas McGray accepts an award on behalf of The California Sunday Magazine at the Ellie Awards in 2017.

The live-events business and publisher of California Sunday Magazine laid off 11 employees on Monday after breaking up with billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs' company in August.

Pop-Up Magazine and its recently formed union are engaging in a war of words over the legality of layoffs implemented earlier this week after its former owner, billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs' Emerson Collective, severed ties with the company.

On Wednesday, the Pop-Up/California Sunday Guild claimed in an open letter that the company, which organizes live storytelling events across the U.S. and publishes the National Magazine Award-winning California Sunday Magazine, had "violated legal and moral obligations" in the way it laid off 11 employees a few days earlier. Pop-Up's CEO and co-founder, Douglas McGray, firmly denied any illegal actions in an open letter to readers on Thursday: "Contrary to what the union is claiming, we disagree that the announcement of these changes to our business, and resulting layoffs, violated federal labor law," he wrote. The magazine's management has attended a two-part bargaining meeting with the Guild since the Monday office shake-up, with the second part devolving into a debate about whether the magazine had violated labor law, according to several sources.

"The second session was almost entirely a debate about whether they had violated the law," one unionized employee of the organization who prefers to remain anonymous says.

At issue between the two parties is the timing of when the Guild, affiliated with The NewsGuild's Media Guild of the West, was notified about the layoffs. According to the Guild, which management recognized in the spring, a union representative received an email from the company two minutes after a meeting began to inform staff that Emerson Collective was cutting its ties to Pop-Up Magazine. Sources said management characterized the corporate breakup as the reason Pop-Up Magazine was suspending publication of its award-winning title California Sunday Magazine and laying off 11 staffers. The union, in early stages of negotiating a first contract with management, says that notification did not offer them enough time to bargain over the layoffs.

"The action constitutes a unilateral change in violation of Sections 8(a)(1), 8(a)(5) and 8(d) of the National Labor Relations Act," Kristina Bui, an organizer with Media Guild of the West, TNG-CWA Local 39213, argues. "The manner of dealing directly with employees, bypassing the union, in notifying them of the layoffs decision is also a violation of Sections 8(a)(1), 8(a)(5) and 8(d)." Labor law dictates that when a company voluntarily recognizes a union and hasn't yet agreed upon a first contract, it has a duty to bargain over changes to the "status quo" of terms and conditions of employment.

The union further points to a statement from the Emerson Collective stating that the separation occurred in August to argue that the union should have learned about the separation earlier in order to bargain. (The statement reads: "Emerson Collective supports innovative storytellers and independent journalists, including Pop-Up Magazine Productions, and is proud of our five-year partnership with them.  In August, Emerson Collective and Pop-Up agreed to a mutual separation that included an additional substantial contribution from Emerson Collective to allow Pop-Up to operate independently and do so without oversight or control by Emerson Collective.  We look forward to possible future collaborations as Pop-Up returns to its status as an independent company.") Emerson made an investment in Pop-Up Magazine as part of the deal to end their relationship and says it was not involved in any operational decisions after the separation. Sources say the magazine is not yet profitable.

"We feel confident you were aware of a need to break status quo and pursue cuts before the announcement during [Monday's] All-Staff Meeting," the union wrote in its letter to McGray and co-founder and president Chas Edwards on Wednesday. The union also says that the fact that laid-off employees were given an end date — Oct. 23 — suggests that the company did not intend to bargain in good faith with the union over layoffs.

McGray counters, in his open letter, that the company complied with labor law by notifying the Guild's lead representative before the all-staff meeting and offering a three-week period for laid-off employees to remain "so we have ample time to bargain in good faith." While a company does not have to bargain over a business decision like closing a magazine, according to U.S. labor law, disputes often arise over whether companies in the midst of a first-contract union negotiation must bargain over layoffs as a result of business decisions. Usually, such disputes are resolved, though sometimes the National Labor Relations Board gets involved.

A unionized employee who spoke with THR expressed regret over the way the layoffs were handled. "I think that Doug and Chas had a real opportunity here to come to the staff and say 'this is what the situation is. We want to work with the union on how to do this humanely,'" the source says. "It would have sent a signal that we are in this together as opposed to 'this is a top-down decision.'"

The incipient employee union was forged amid a difficult landscape for the company during the pandemic: Pop-Up Magazine and California Sunday Magazine employees initially asked management to recognize their union in May, around the same time when California Sunday shut down its print edition and staffers took pay cuts. Days after the employees presented their union officially to management, five full-time staffers were laid off, including one founding member of the union; a few weeks later, management recognized the union. Bargaining began in late August, the same month Emerson Collective says their separation agreement was solidified. According to one source, bargaining included details about moving into Emerson Collective's new offices in San Francisco.

Current bargaining is focused on severance for departing employees. In May, employees' severance agreement was 12 weeks of salary, two extra weeks for every year of service and six months of COBRA reimbursement — time will tell what benefits this month's laid-off employees will receive. In a joint statement to THR, Emerson Collective and Pop-Up Magazine said, "Emerson Collective and Pop-Up Magazine Productions are proud of their five-year partnership. We look forward to possible future collaborations as Pop-Up Magazine Productions enters this new phase as an independent company.”

In his open letter on Thursday, McGray added, "I have high hopes for our future. But we had to make some really hard decisions this week."

Emerson Collective did not respond to THR's request for comment about whether the organization plans to cut back on publishing investments elsewhere. Powell Jobs' organization also has a majority stake in The Atlantic, which is not unionized. The Washington D.C.-based magazine disclosed layoffs of 68 staffers in May amid the pandemic, with many in the live-events and marketing divisions of the company. Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley said the layoffs resulted from "the overnight and near-complete undoing of in-person events and, for now, a bracing decline in advertising."