By Jeremy Appel
After two years without a contract, unionized staff at Canada’s National Observer have reached their first agreement with management, continuing a trend of journalists at new media outlets organizing their workplaces.
The five-year contract offers immediate pay increases for most staff, a company-contributed pension plan, equipment and expense allowances, overtime compensation and an annual three per cent pay bump, according to a joint June 21 news release from the Canadian Media Guild, which includes the National Observer union, and management.
“We are now positioned as one of the few media start-ups – or even small businesses – to offer this level of benefits to our staff, and we are so pleased to lead the way,” said National Observer CEO and editor-in-chief Linda Solomon-Wood, who founded the outlet in 2015.
CMG president Carmel Smyth said she looks forward to “building a respectful and fair workplace for all.”
“After two years of talks, most of which occurred during the pandemic, we are all glad to have arrived at an equitable agreement. All union members came together during the process, and representatives from the Canadian Media Guild were invaluable in their support,” Smyth said.
Morgan Sharp, a National Observer reporter covering youth issues in Toronto, told Rankandfile.ca the agreement was unanimously ratified after a “longer-than-expected process.”
“The people who have come to work for the National Observer over the years of its young life have elevated the art of climate reporting in Canada and those [who] remain deserve all the benefits this deal offers,” Sharp said.
The union drive at National Observer is part of a broader pattern in recent years of journalists at new media outlets banding together to attain better working conditions and pay.
PressProgress tries to practice what it preaches
Organizing its workers was relatively painless for PressProgress, given the progressive online outlets unabashedly pro-labour editorial slant.
PressProgress is run by the non-profit Broadbent Institute, whose workers pursued an organization-wide union drive around the time PressProgress began expanding.
The Broadbent Institute launched in 2011 as progressive think tank and established PressProgress as its news outlet in 2013. At the time Luke LeBrun was the only employee on staff. In 2015, it added another employee, Luke Savage, who is now a staff writer at Jacobin.
In 2017, Broadbent staff unionized, and LeBrun and Savage signed union cards. This happened around the time they hired two reporters to cover Alberta and B.C. politics, who were on contract and thus not part of the agreement.
LeBrun identified “startup culture” as the reason Broadbent was relatively slow to unionize its workforce. “It was in the early days, we’re trying to build up an organization and you have all these constraints in terms of finances and not being sure if you have long-term sustainable funding,” LeBrun told Rankandfile.ca.
“You’re also trying out new things. In the beginning, no one was really sure if PressProgress was going to work out in the long-term.”
He said this is “totally understandable,” since everyone is doing their best in the early days to keep things afloat. But once the organization grew to a sufficient degree, its employees sought to “collect their power and their agency in terms of making sure that we had structures in place that address labor concerns and address the concerns of the workers.”
The Broadbent union ratified its first contract in early 2018 after a few months of negotiations, with LeBrun serving on the negotiating team.
PressProgress’s staff now includes LeBrun and four other full-time journalists, demonstrating that better conditions for workers is far from an impediment to growth.
“It’s important to practice what you preach,” LeBrun said. “It makes our news organization stronger, definitely, that we have dedicated full-time reporters rather than just kind of relying on a stream of freelancers and contractors, etc., especially because it allows them to build up knowledge and build up expertise on the stuff that they’re covering.”
Burnout at Canadaland
Canadaland began as journalist and founder Jesse Brown’s standalone podcast, but has expanded into a podcast network and news outlet that employs about a dozen staff.
Arshy Mann, host of the Commons podcast and union steward, recalls their union drive beginning around September 2019 and was largely motivated by the same forces driving unionization elsewhere — the desire for workers to have a collective outlet for addressing their workplace concerns.
At Canadaland specifically, burnout and high staff turnover were key concerns, Mann told Rankandfile.ca.
“People had a lot of different roles. Things could shift. There wasn’t a lot of structure. And oftentimes it was employees and workers who would bear the brunt of that. We had a lot of turnover at the company over many years. Not many people would stay for very long and we wanted to fix that,” he said.
The union drive began as a management-free Slack chat, where colleagues would confide in each other about their workplace concerns.
“We realized that many of us were experiencing a lot of the same things. What really kick started it is when we realized that these aren’t isolated concerns or specific to one of us, but this was something that affects all of us, and that a union collective bargaining would both give us more of a voice and hopefully provide more structure for what is still a pretty young company,” Mann said.
Management was supportive of the certification process, which occurred in the summer of 2020. “What took you so long?” Mann recalls Brown saying in jest.
Negotiations, however, were naturally more contentious, but produced the Canadaland union’s inaugural collective bargaining agreement, which was signed in early 2022 after about a year of negotiation.
Mann called the Zoom bargaining necessitated at the height of the pandemic a “special kind of hell.”
“Once we were able to at least get in-person, we were able to move through issues a little quicker,” he added.
In the contract, the union was able to secure more vacation days, revenue sharing for the workers’ intellectual property the company profits from, and regular employment status for some workers who were misclassified as freelancers.
Mann noted he’s seen less turnover at Canadaland since the contract was ratified.
Ultimately, it’s up to workers to enforce their contract. Management isn’t going to do it. This is always a challenge with a small workforce that doesn’t necessarily have the time to ensure management abides by the collective agreement.
But Mann Canadaland’s successful union drive has helped set precedent for other media startups with a small workforce who want to bargain collectively.
“It’s still tough, but I don’t think there’s anybody in the union who regrets us unionizing at all,” he said. “We’ve just increased the level of solidarity among each other.”
Jeremy Appel is an Alberta-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Rankandfile.ca, including special coverage of Cargill-UFCW bargaining in 2021. Check out Jeremy’s reporting at The Orchard.