Last week, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti held an off-the-record company meeting, parts of which were tweeted by the company’s media reporter, Steven Perlberg.
Responding to a question about unions, Peretti reiterated to his Stateside staff that while he is not “personally anti-union,” he does not believe unionization is right for his particular shop. Telling employees it had been a “good year for business,” Peretti gifted his New York staff $250 bonuses, as well as BuzzFeed beanies. Some New York staffers took to Twitter to express their devotion to their company, and by extension their boss.
But this week, as his UK employees begin the grim process of deciding which chunk of their newsroom will be eliminated, they may be feeling less than grateful for the swag. During the yearlong attempt to have their union recognized, they were told, some say, by senior management that organizing could lead to a reduction in perks like free lunch, snacks, and yes, hoodies, as company lawyers fought the union through every step. And instead of negotiating what has been seen by some as a disjointed process through the National Union of Journalists, they head into the holidays after a messy couple of weeks.
In late November, Peretti sent a long email to his entire staff, extolling the virtues of his company and shouting out Twitter morning show AM to DM before mentioning, a couple hundred words in, a round of layoffs—layoffs editor-in-chief Ben Smith later told the London office would account to more than 20 jobs. Later that day, the London office announced the Christmas party would also be canceled. And a week later, staff representatives surprised employees by correcting the number of layoffs to 40, across the business and editorial sides: Twenty-three of the UK office’s 76 journalists are currently up for elimination. The staff wisely held their own Christmas party and promptly headed to the pub.
Because UK labor laws are stricter than they are in the U.S., staff cuts of this size require a company to negotiate layoffs for a period of at least 30 days. In the week leading up to Christmas, BuzzFeed UK staff are meeting with managers, who are assessing their roles and skills to determine which positions are considered redundant, as well as negotiating potential layoff packages.
Peretti sent an email with a single heart emoji in the subject line to the entire staff on the Saturday following the layoff announcement, thanking BuzzFeed for “being so caring and thoughtful these past few days, especially those of you who said goodbye to close colleagues and friends.” In the UK, the email was received in the dead of night by staff who had not even begun a process that is expected to last until midway through next month—a move one staffer described as “tone deaf” in the British press.
Current employees are reticent to speak about the layoffs, given that they’re in negotiations and fear the adverse effects of speaking about management. “Obviously, it’s been a very trying time,” one says, “and morale is incredibly low,” adding that it will be challenging to get employees “back on board” once the process concludes.
Peretti’s recent comments to his U.S. staff may sound familiar to the London office, who got a vastly expanded version of the speech in 2016. Almost exactly a year before the layoff announcement, the BuzzFeed UK editorial staff sent a letter to UK editor-in-chief Janine Gibson requesting union recognition with the National Union of Journalists. In response, Peretti sent a letter referring to “outside activists” who had criticized his anti-union stances and reiterating that a union was not in BuzzFeed’s best interest, adding that it was important that he and his employees could “speak openly and directly with each other.”
To that end, Perretti sent BuzzFeed’s U.S-based “head of people,” Lenke Taylor, to the London office, where staff say she described their hoodie-wearing boss as not a “regular CEO.”
“I think everyone sort of knew Jonah’s schtick about unions being bad was bullshit,” says one former employee, who wished to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement. But “the majority of the staff there are really, really young, and this is their first job.”
Peretti himself made a rare visit to the UK office almost exactly a year ago, hosting an all-staff Q&A to explain why a union might be right for other companies, just not for his, as well as a long “social visit” in the local pub and a next-day brunch. Employees from the time describe Peretti “feigning ignorance” about why his British employees would want to organize, and a sense that he took the drive personally, asking his staff why they wanted to go through a “third party” to address such issues as gender pay parity rather than speaking directly to their CEO. (In the New York meeting, Peretti said he believed he and other senior management could more effectively “advocate” for employees than a “third party,” as well.)
Peretti, who once published a piece of Marxist theory in an academic journal, also offered a bit of critical theory to his employees during the 2016 visit. Employees at the time recall him speaking of Karl Marx’s ideas about the “species being” during the pub visit.
“I understood [Jonah’s] argument to mean that he thought he had created such a utopian workplace that nobody was actually having to work,” says one former employee, though the person added they weren’t entirely sure. Neither BuzzFeed nor Peretti opted to clarify—or comment on the layoffs or anti-union campaign.
Over the next year, BuzzFeed’s lawyers fought the ratification of the union, filing lengthy rebuttals to contest each step of the process. As recently as this month, as staff was adjusting to news of the layoffs, the British Central Arbitration Committee reached a decision on the union’s proposed bargaining unit, rejecting BuzzFeed’s claims the UK “Buzz” team—the team responsible for viral content like quizzes—was closer in nature to advertising than editorial, given its emphasis on generating traffic, and shouldn’t be included.
“My main vibe is of dismay at the time and money they put into the anti-union fight,” says the same employee who spoke to Peretti at length about Marx. “The sheer effort of it. They they would rather destroy their own staff’s morale than grant them a basic right.”
Having effectively canceled Christmas, the London office nonetheless treated its staff to an opulent free lunch this week—a privilege that’s still intact, as employees wait to find out who’s out of a job next year. On this week’s menu: caviar tartlets.
Correction: A former version of this story incorrectly stated Jonah Peretti studied Karl Marx during his time in graduate school, as a Buzzfeed rep was quick to point out. In fact, Peretti read a wide array of critical theory as an undergrad and later published a piece of Marxist theory in an academic journal, before he attended MIT. It was about advertising and “resisting the logic of late capitalism.”