May 9, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – It was fitting that the Metro New York Labor Communications Council gave Gawker labor reporter Hamilton Nolan its Labor Communicator of the Year award at its annual convention May 6.
The council, an association of labor-union publications in the city, was focusing on the “gig economy,” the computer-fueled explosion in freelance, part-time, and otherwise precarious forms of work. Nolan swam against that tide: He was the main organizer behind Gawker staff joining the Writers Guild of America East last year, making the site the first large online-news outlet to unionize. He also, as Joe Fedele of the United Food and Commercial Workers noted in presenting the award, posted the Target chain-store anti-union video that went viral in 2014.
“Gawker runs a lot more than Hulk Hogan’s sex tapes,” Nola quipped. More seriously, he told the audience, labor reporting is far from obsolete, because economic inequality, along with climate change, is one of the two big stories of our times. “The story is coming to the labor movement,” he said.
Organizing at Gawker, he said, was “like having another full-time job where you don’t get paid and everybody hates you,” but ultimately, joining a union is “an idea that sells itself.”
The council gave out more than 100 other awards, from best historical feature to best tweet. The winners included American Federation of Musicians Local 802’s magazine, Allegro, and 1199SEIU’s Our Life and Times, for general excellence; United Federation of Teachers Local 2’s New York Teacher, for best contemporary feature; and for best photograph, Ironworkers Local 46’s The Lather. A story on Eva Moskowitz’s chain of charter schools in the Council of Supervisors and Administrators’ CSA News captured third prize for best headline: “New York Is Delivered From Eva—For Now.”
“How do we embrace the innovations of the digital age without sacrificing workers’ rights?” Public Advocate Letitia James asked, opening the discussion of the gig economy. Almost all the net gain in employment in the U.S. since 2005 has been in “alternative” work arrangements, she noted. The flexibility of working for an on-demand cleaning service can “feel like a dream” for a single mother with a tight child-care schedule, she said, but this kind of work comes without health or retirement benefits, and workers can be victimized.
The four labor journalists on the discussion panel delivered mostly bad news. Labor’s “collective leverage” is at a historic low, said former Newsday investigative reporter Robert Hennelly. The public sector, where unions are strongest, isn’t immune: Katie Unger of City Limits pointed to the huge proportion of adjunct professors at public universities, while In These Times contributing editor Michelle Chen cited workers for federal contractors. Mauricio Niebia of the National Writers Union said people need to know their rights when signing contracts, so they won’t sign them away for perpetuity in exchange for “exposure.” Knowing your rights is one thing, responded Unger, “but your power to garner changes is something different.”
A bill pending in the City Council would require employers to pay freelancers double if they don’t pay them within 30 days, Niebia said. It would also mandate written contracts for any freelance work over $200. Sponsored by Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), it has been backed by 32 of the Council’s 51 members, but has been laid over in committee since February.
Local 802 political director Chris Carroll offered one note of levity. The union’s hall was an appropriate site for the discussion, he said, because “musicians were part of the gig economy before it was called the gig economy.”