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GMG Union Workers Score a Victory Over Great Hill Partners in the First Open-Ended Digital Media Strike

As digital media shops continue to organize, GMG Union's victory against a famously oppositional management sets an optimistic tone about what's possible. It also underscores why organizing is being prioritized in newsrooms across the US — the first open-ended digital media strike in history was a consequence of private equity purchase.

by | March 7, 2022

On Tuesday, February 28, the contract for nearly 100 workers unionized at the six publications formerly under the Gizmodo Media Group umbrella expired; by Wednesday March 1, they were striking. The Gizmodo Media Group Union claims that Great Hill Partners — the private equity company that bought Jezebel, The Root, Lifehacker, Kotaku, Jalopnik and Gizmodo and turned them into G/O Media in 2019 — has been stalling negotiations for a new contract and the changes the employees would like to see made to it.

The GMG union was asking for new salary minimums, parental leave, trans-inclusive healthcare, new diversity KPIs and more. The union voted on a strike with 100% consensus among the 93% of members voting, agreeing to a work stoppage and asking readers to stop reading the six sites in question as they picketed and supported themselves via the union’s strike fund. In an email to staff obtained by Poynter, G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller wrote he was “disappointed” and expressed that GMG Union should be amenable to the terms that were accepted by the Onion Union a year ago: “We are struggling to understand why terms agreed to by half the editorial union members last year are not acceptable to the other half now. Unfortunately, that puts G/O Media in an untenable position with regard to these current negotiations.”

The fight for a fair contract for GMG Union is about more than the G/O employees themselves, says WGAE council member Sara David in an interview with Study Hall. “They were the first ever digital media union — that kind of ignited the entire digital media union movement in the labor, the community at large. But then in the past couple of years, you’ve just seen a huge chasm in contract wins in GMG versus all the other digital media shops. …there’s like a three year gap between what the rest of us have won and what GMG has won. And the only difference there is because they were bought by private equity bosses.”

G/O Media’s management and the upper leadership at Great Hill Partners have been roundly criticized for their management of the former Gawker properties since they bought them out: G/O’s edict that Deadspin should “stick to sports” and walk away from the lauded cultural criticism they had become known for became the catalyst for Defector Media; specifically Jim Spanfeller’s staffing decisions have been named as the cause of the newsroom problems at The Root and Jezebel.

So far, the backlash doesn’t seem to have motivated Great Hill Partners to rethink anything — David speculates that while many media CEOs take public perception seriously, private equity firms like GHP don’t: “G/O has been immune from that because none of their private equity bosses care …I think Jim Spanfeller also kind of revels in it.” (David also confirmed rumors that Spanfeller personally sent doughnuts to the GMG picket line, in what some members suspect is a Succession reference implying he is, in this scenario, an all-seeing, omnipotent Logan Roy.)

GMG staffers have been locked out of their Slack accounts, email, and services like Chartbeat that would allow them to confirm the impact that their strike is having on G/O’s traffic and engagement. However, many have noted that G/O has begun running content from its international sites, uninvolved in the strike, on its US platform — for instance, republishing content from Kotaku Australia on Kotaku US (and closing comments to avoid mention of the strike). (G/O Media did not respond to requests for comment related to this story.)

During a rally on Friday, GMG Union reps received word that management was willing to come to the table for negotiations; on Sunday, GMG Union announced that “G/O Media agreed to raise salary minimums, severance, and parental leave; maintain our healthcare while requiring it to be trans-inclusive; and ensure annual increases for our Unit members.” The contract also codifies strengthened language around editorial independence and ethics compared to their last contract, putting members in a more powerful position if they feel G/O Media has infringed on their editorial code and want to take it to arbitration. (A full list of contract concessions won can be found through GMG Union.)

The contract agreement is still pending WGAE Council approval and a ratification vote by members; if it succeeds, it will be a powerful takeaway from the first ever open-ended strike by a digital media shop. “I think everyone’s kind of like this is the last line, because Gawker was the very first unionized shop and they’ve kind of been on the frontlines of every worst turn in the media industry,” says David. “So everyone’s kind of watching to be like, if they can get out of this alive, I think a lot of other shops could too.”

“I’ve been inspired and just blown away by the solidarity among my colleagues in our shared mission to create more dignified working conditions for all of us, acknowledging that marginalized staff and staff of color are more likely to be underpaid and struggle with health care costs, that our numerous trans colleagues deserve guarantees for trans-supportive and inclusive health coverage, and that our working parents deserve flexible conditions and supportive family leave policies,” Jezebel staff writer Kylie Cheung told Study Hall over email. “I’m so proud of what we accomplished together, and particularly the tirelessness of our bargaining committee who were in negotiations with management until far past 1 am on Friday last week.”

Jezebel Senior Reporter and bargaining committee member Caitlin Cruz told Study Hall she’s especially proud that the parental leave they won is universal, meaning it applies regardless of whether the employee is a gestational parent. Cruz managed a remote strike team of about 40 people “doing social media campaigns, research, Twitch streams, interviews and more” from her location in Texas. She emphasized that the entire union was prepared to continue the strike indefinitely if a concession from management hadn’t come this weekend: “We had plans for a Monday picket line and virtual actions — we were ready to keep going.”

As digital media shops continue to organize, GMG Union’s victory against a famously oppositional management sets an optimistic tone about what’s possible. It also underscores why organizing is being prioritized in newsrooms across the US — the first open-ended digital media strike in history was a consequence of private equity purchase, an increasingly attractive option for media leaders in a tumultuous moment for the industry. The key, says David, remains “really challenging ourselves to see everyone who touches a story as a comrade and an ally in the fight to keep journalism alive against private equity.”

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