Yesterday, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti added more fuel to the widespread speculation that the company could go public next year. If BuzzFeed employees are smart—and many of them are!—they will not let that happen without having a union drive first.
Over the past two years, a large swath of the online media industry—including GMG, Huffington Post, Vice, and others—has unionized with either the Writers Guild of America, East or the News Guild. Everywhere that has signed a union contract thus far has won financial gains for employees and various forms of workplace protections. BuzzFeed, a behemoth, is the largest single non-union outlier remaining in the industry.
Thus far, BuzzFeed has been financed by private investment. But Jonah Peretti told an Australian interviewer this weekend that “I feel like we have had enough revenue to go public for a while,” adding that “We certainly want the option to go public, if that’s the best option that makes the most sense.” Given a current valuation in the low billions of dollars and the potential for an enormous payday that would come with an IPO, it is reasonable and prudent to plan for that eventuality, if you are someone with a vested interest in the future of the company.
In 2015, as our industry was just beginning to unionize, Peretti told his employees that a union “wouldn’t be very good” for them. The reasons why the CEO of a company would try to dissuade his employees from unionizing are the same reasons why the employees themselves should pursue unionizing—particularly at a time when the company could soon be going public:
- By unionizing, employees are almost guaranteed to get higher salaries and a larger portion of the company’s profits.
- By unionizing, employees make themselves a powerful stakeholder that management is forced to listen to and negotiate with as equals.
- By unionizing, employees give themselves a mechanism to protect their editorial freedom, insulate themselves from pressure from the business side of the company, and exercise a level of control over their jobs that they would not otherwise have.
An IPO means that the company will be subjected to far greater financial pressures than it was before, from institutional investors who may care very little about quaint notions of “journalistic integrity” and “progressive values.” Can employees be sure that the company will live up to its own rhetoric? Can employees have that in writing, in the form of a legal contract? And hey, can employees get a fair chunk of equity when this IPO goes down, too?
Yes, they can. If they unionize. If not, they take whatever their zillionaire funders feel like gracing them with.
There is one more reason why BuzzFeed, in particular, should organize: An industry that reaches a high level of union density will have higher wages for everyone in the industry. Once unions get strong enough, union wages and working conditions become the industry standard, and everyone benefits. As the biggest single non-union outlier, BuzzFeed must organize if we are ever to be able to reach the status of “union industry.” In this sense, BuzzFeed employees would not just be helping themselves by organizing—they would be helping to raise the standards for everyone else in the industry, and for thousands of future online media people who will enter our industry in years to come.
Journalists tend to jealously guard our independence. It is not in our nature to work together. But this is a case in which self-interest and the good of the whole overlap. BuzzFeed employees still have time to organize before that IPO happens. If they do, they have a lot to gain. And so do the rest of us. Jonah Peretti will still be rich, either way.