Over the past two years, digital media has seen a groundswell of organizing efforts across the industry. Today, the staff of one of the non-profits at the forefront of defending those outlets’ rights—the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)—has also opted to join a union, the Writers Guild of America East.
“The first journalist unions were formed during the Great Depression in response to shrinking newsrooms and pay cuts — now digital media journalists are turning to unionization for many of the same reasons: as a viable way to protect precarious workers at a moment when the industry as a whole feels pretty precarious,” Natalie Southwick, Central and South America program coordinator for CPJ, told Splinter in an email. “In a volatile industry, it’s only natural that many journalists would want security and a seat at the table for decisions that have a major impact on their livelihoods.”
Efforts within CPJ to join the WGAE—which also represents Splinter and its sister sites at G/O Media—began over the last several months, according to organizers, and more than 90-percent of 30-person staff have shown support during the card-signing process.
“We’ve grown a lot as an organization over the last 4-5 years, and that means that practices that were in place when our organization was half this big are no longer necessarily the ones that make sense for our current size and goals,” Southwick said. “CPJ’s growth has also made it more difficult to maintain consistency across the organization in terms of opportunities, policies, and accountability. We wanted to make sure we were taking proactive steps to ensure this is a positive workplace for everyone as we continue to grow.”
As has been the case with other digital media shops, pay transparency, diversity commitments, and increased input from staff in the organizations operations are expected to be key issues as CPJ moves to negotiate its first contract.
Union drives at some shops have been met with considerable backlash in recent years, both from management and from senior staffers. In the worst cases, such as DNA Info, management chose to shutter the business and lay off all staff rather than negotiate. But according to organizers, management at CPJ have been welcoming and receptive to the change. “The CPJ staff is tremendously effective, and as leaders of this organization we are proud of the work they do to advance press freedom and defend the rights of journalists,” Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ, wrote. “We look forward to working with the union to make CPJ the best possible place to work.”
Read the organizers’ full statement below:
Since 1981, CPJ has been a leading global voice on behalf of press freedom, defending the right of journalists around the world to report the news safely and without fear of reprisal. We all believe wholeheartedly in this mission and are humbled and honored to work with the courageous journalists we have the privilege to support, as well as our committed colleagues, who bring passion, expertise and empathy to this important work.
In the past few years, CPJ has grown significantly in all areas: budget, staff and consultants, global reach, visibility and scope of projects. As we continue to expand and adapt in response to evolving threats to press freedom around the world, we want to ensure that our internal structures can do the same. Through union representation we can strengthen our workplace culture and ensure that all staff—from longtime employees to new hires—have the necessary support and protection to carry out CPJ’s mission.
We are proud to work at an organization that has taken steps to provide comprehensive benefits for its staff and are confident that CPJ leadership is committed to staff wellbeing. With that in mind, we look forward to collaborating with management on issues including equitable and transparent compensation structures; fair hiring, disciplinary, and termination practices; staff input in decision making; and fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Unions have long played a fundamental role in ensuring accountability within the workplace. As an organization that prides itself on holding states and institutions around the world accountable, it is in keeping with our values to stand in solidarity with the unions that are advocating for journalists and newsrooms around the world, and to add our own voices to that call.
We look forward to the successful completion of the collective bargaining process and anticipate that this new structure for representation in the workplace will help our staff work even more effectively to advance CPJ’s critical mission.