We unionized the digital team at The Seattle Times. You can do it too.
A mini-diary of the organizing experience, including a timeline, resources you can rely on, and decision points you might face
The digital journalists at The Seattle Times ended a decades-long, arbitrary divide within the company last fall by voting to unionize and join our peers in the existing Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, which already represented more than 100 employees at the paper who are not categorized as “digital” employees.
The official process itself took four months, preceded by more than one year of organizing and several years of conversations among colleagues.
But securing our rights as workers was worth it. After completing contract negotiations, we’ll enjoy the same protections our colleagues have had for years, including vision insurance, “just cause” protections from firing, and more.
Our fight is emblematic of the journalism industry itself. The Seattle Times digital staff is composed of more people of color, more women, and more young people than the newsroom as a whole. We lead the way in innovative, forward-thinking work, but our fragile status underscored that we were being treated inequitably for our contributions.
How we came to this process
Reporters, photographers, copy editors, columnists, news artists, page designers and others have been unionized journalists at The Seattle Times for decades. But because of an archaic agreement made during contract negotiations in the early 2000s, digital journalists had been an excluded class.
At the time the agreement was made, the company viewed digital workers as separate from the mission of the newsroom, focused on building and fixing the company website. Since then, digital journalism has expanded. SeattleTimes.com rivals our print newspaper as the primary way readers engage with our stories.
As the platforms have grown, so have digital journalism jobs. By the time we unionized on Sept. 25, 2020, 12 people had digital jobs with titles such as news producer, engagement editor, video journalist, and news developer.
Despite these advancements, our status in the newsroom remained tenuous.
A year and a half after I began working at The Seattle Times, I met with two of my fellow digital journalists, Scott Greenstone and Mohammed Kloub, to talk about unionizing. We had frustrations over scheduling, pay, and respect for digital journalism in the newsroom, and we wanted to do something about it.
Scott, Moh, and I got in touch with the PNW Guild President Evan Bush (who is also a fellow Seattle Times reporter), who then put us in touch with then-PNW Guild Administrative Officer Brad Sherman. Because of the way the agreement was written, the Guild could not simply absorb digital workers; we had to vote ourselves in.
Prior to our effort, at least three people at different times had discussed unionizing the digital staff. While they pushed the idea forward and laid the groundwork for us to build on, those efforts ultimately fizzled because the people driving them either left or switched into unionized or management roles. Even among our group, Scott became a Guild-represented reporter, and Moh left the company a few months into organizing.
However, with more digital workers engaged after we began organizing, including Lauren Frohne and Corinne Chin, we began conversations in earnest in fall 2019. We had conversations over coffee and met with people over pizza inside the Seattle Labor Temple. We even planned an outing at an ice-skating rink to chat and get to know each other in December of that year.
A foundation had been built and momentum was growing for months, but after the official declaration of the COVID–19 pandemic, we watched fearfully as newsrooms around the country began to implement layoffs. Because we did not have union protections, which include a layoff process, we feared for our job security. The crisis made our union urgent.
Unionizing is a process. Here’s what our process looked like, and how you can do this, too.
How we got started
Communication Workers of America, which encompasses the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, provided an incredible amount of support and guidance, including a week-by-week timeline to keep us on track and our to-do list organized.
- Four weeks before we publicly announced our campaign, we wrote a mission statement and assigned negotiators to communicate with the company for our request.
- Three weeks out, we collected the personal contact information for every eligible member, designed a logo for our union (here are some ideas), and completed a legal analysis to ensure our petition could move forward.
- With two weeks left to go, we sent all of our designs for custom T-shirts, posters, and buttons to the printing press and conducted an assessment of where all eligible members stood with their support.
- By the last week, eligible members signed and submitted union authorization cards.
- The day before our campaign went public, we held a final meeting for all members in the unit to go over any lingering questions. On go day, we sent management an email, with all members CC’d, demanding voluntary recognition. We filed for a union election two days later as a precaution.
- As part of our preparation, CWA also organized an “inoculation training” to prepare us for any potential misinformation or persuasion campaigns the company could run. We identified common anti-union phrases and practiced our responses to counter their claims.
You don’t have to come up with your own plan from scratch! CWA uses the AEIOU acronym: Aggravate, Educate, Inoculate, Organize, Union. There are existing frameworks you can lean on, and people who can give you very specific guidance on how to get started.
In late April, six other digital journalists and I formed an organizing committee, which is a group of people who have taken on the responsibility of getting us unionized. The committee’s job focuses on reaching out to eligible members and doing the logistical work behind organizing. We went public with our union on May 26, 2020.
During those preparatory five weeks, our committee reached out to every eligible member and created a scale to determine the level of understanding each person held about our unionizing process.
On one end were the members of the organizing committee, which represented about half the eligible unit, who we knew would vote in favor. The other end of the spectrum would have been anyone who was actively campaigning against the union, but luckily we did not face that level of opposition. In the middle were people who attended meetings and were on board, people who were neutral and didn’t have enough information, and people who had information but were not interested.
In addition to outreach during that time, our committee put together a plan for a public announcement:
- As a group, we developed a mission statement as our purpose for unionizing.
- Hilary Fung, a news developer who has since left The Seattle Times, created a logo that we used on T-shirts, buttons, stickers, posters and desk tents.
- Taylor Blatchford, a news producer, wrote a press release that was distributed to local and national media. Video journalists Corinne Chin and Lauren Frohne collected video clips from all of us to compile into a campaign video.
- Sports Producer Chris Cole and I launched a Twitter account (@STdigitalunion) and crafted language to use on social media. We encouraged our entire unit to change their photos on Twitter, Slack, and Zoom to the union logo.
We released all of these materials to our management and online the same day we went public.
At this point, the company had a couple of options for how they could respond. They could have chosen to voluntarily recognize our union that same day. Or, they could have done nothing and await a vote among the 12 eligible members four weeks later.
Instead, they took us to court, arguing that the existing union would be in violation of its own contract if it allowed us to join, and regularly emailed the digital team about how the Guild was making the process more difficult (see the “What to expect and watch out for” section below for details), which could have led our eligible members to lose faith or leave the effort. In the end, we endured four months of legal back-and-forth. But despite those efforts, the judge ruled that yes, we have the right to join the existing union, and we were also able to retain enthusiasm for unionizing among our members.
Decision points you might face
Our process was unique because we were a subset of workers within an already-unionized workplace.
Decide whether to start a new union or affiliate with an existing guild. As we began initial discussions, we faced the question of whether we should join the existing union that covers workers at The Seattle Times or form our own separate union. We chose to join the existing union because its members already enjoyed a solid, decades-long contract and because we wanted to reinforce that we were journalists just like our colleagues. Our campaign slogan was #OneNewsroomOneUnion.
Our company took our union request to court as an attempt to prevent us from organizing. However, the most important piece of information to know is that all journalists retain a legal right to unionize, under U.S. labor laws.
Create a list of which job titles to include in the union. Our guild includes workers in News (and now digital jobs specifically), Circulation, Advertising, Marketing, and Library, but we exclude jobs in executive or supervisory roles. We find there to be stronger power in numbers, but new unions may want to consider which departments to include.
Evaluate the pace you are comfortable with. Make sure you build a solid foundation of support for the union before you talk with hesitant workers. If word gets out before you’re ready, you may tip off management, who could then begin an anti-union campaign.
Resources (they’re free)
Formal guidance and community support were critical in helping our union get off the ground. CWA provided us access to many of these resources, and the best part is they’re free! Union members don’t pay any dues or expenses until they have a contract.
- Unionization Training and Support: Our greatest resource was Brad Sherman, the former administrative officer of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild. Along with Enida Shuku, a representative from CWA, they provided counseling, training, and support.
- Legal Training and Support: The Guild provided us free pizza, swag, and access to lawyers who defended us in court. Training sessions prepared us against tactics and strategies the company could implement to try to deter us.
- Solidarity: We also received unofficial support from fellow journalists and community members—solidarity that helped fuel us as we endured a legal battle.
Unions around the country, especially other journalism unions, provided a roadmap for our process and a network of support to lean on.
What to expect and watch out for
Expect to spend a moderate amount of time on this process, outside of work hours. At times, it felt like a political campaign that involved lots of strategizing and engagement.
Be prepared for adversarial company communications. Companies that don’t voluntarily recognize a union use different strategies to prevent people from organizing. Some are extremely friendly, emphasizing the pleasant culture of the company, to dissuade a need for a union. Some plead, asking for a second chance.
Initially, The Seattle Times offered us a form of recognition that came with significant strings attached. Our most important concern was that the company wanted us to waive rights regarding our speech and communication that we would have retained through a National Labor Relations Board process. We declined their offer.
At that point, the company filed a complaint to the NLRB over whether the PNW Guild had the authority to represent digital journalists, and when a judge ruled that we could be represented, the company appealed the decision, which a judge denied. Throughout the process, the company also argued its point of view through regular emails to the digital team, and later to all newsroom employees.
Not all employees will be on board with unionizing. Several employees voiced valid personal concerns and reservations about publicly supporting our union drive. Although we disagreed with some of the hesitations, we respected their viewpoints and we continue to work amicably and productively with them.
What’s next for us
We have begun bargaining for a contract! With the help of our new Guild representative Katie Gillespie, we’re seeking more consistent and reliable scheduling for producers, equipment procedures for our video journalists, and pay scales that align with our job duties and functions.
We continue to hold weekly meetings with our bargaining committee and monthly meetings with the entire unit. Organizing continues even after you unionize!
For those who would like to support us, we encourage you to write a letter to Seattle Times management telling them why you support our work and why predictable schedules are important to employees’ mental health.
Michelle Baruchman is a writer and engagement editor at The Seattle Times and a member of the Seattle Times Digital Union bargaining committee. At The Times, she has worked on the Traffic Lab and Education Lab teams, which focus on exploring promising solutions to the region’s pressing issues. Prior to joining The Seattle Times, she interned at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She is from Atlanta.