On the night of Thursday, August 27, a small group gathered in a quiet, bare room in Pacific Palisades, California, preparing to sign off on the future of an organization and spur the momentum of a movement. Though the meeting was brief and inconspicuous, it made history.
A member of Truthout's board of directors had signed a recognition statement, granting Truthout employees membership in The Newspaper Guild/Communication Workers of America. Earlier that evening, Truthout had held the country's first "virtual card check," verifying union cards with faxed PDFs of each employee's signature. We became the first online-only news site to successfully unionize.
"It points to what is possible going forward," said Truthout's union representative, Shannon Duffy, of the St. Louis Newspaper Guild. "For other employee groups who are scattered around the country, this is a model that organizers may want to attempt. It made the Internet a tool of organization that it had never been before."
Truthout's unionization was unique in that employee recruitment, meetings and strategy sessions all came in a virtual form, according to Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild/Communication Workers of America. The members of the Truthout organizing committee were based in New York, Sacramento, Los Angeles and Chicago, respectively.
"We've certainly represented wire services for years that were far-flung, but we've never done any organizing where the group never saw each other or the organizers face to face," Lunzer said.
Moreover, the virtual card check introduced a new tool to ease the process of unionizing, at a time when many workplaces are spread out over different states - or even different continents.
"It made a theoretical practice - online card check - into a reality," said Patric Verrone, a television writer and president of the Writers Guild of America, west (WGAW), who led the historic 2007 writers' strike. "As such, it will allow for employees with many disparate locations to sign a union representation card without the expense and complications of traveling to a central location."
Verrone served as Truthout's "third party neutral" during the card check, counting employees' union cards to verify a majority. He noted that the labor movement has paid more attention to online workers in recent years. One product of the 2007 writers' strike was that the WGAW's jurisdiction expanded to cover media made for the Internet.
Making Online Organizing Work
Employers of online-based employees often claim that unionization isn't feasible since there's no central location where employees can meet, according to Verrone. He also notes that, since many web sites are small start-up operations, it's easy to claim that budgetary woes make union benefits an unrealistic luxury.
However, telecommuting employees often need a union just as much as on-site workers.
Internet-based employees share many of the same concerns that prompted workers to start unionizing in the first place, although they may look different in a virtual context, according to Lunzer. He pointed to the issue of work hours as an example of an age-old workplace problem that manifests in new forms for online workers.
"The myth is there's this group of young, digital-savvy workers who live all day on the Internet," Lunzer said. "The truth is, all workers need a life. Online workers are beginning to say, we need to sort this out - work is a part of life we enjoy, but it's not our whole life. In a way, they're just like the textile workers in New England who worked long hours every day and didn't get Saturdays off."
So, how does one organize a union, when there's no basement or living room to meet in, no cafeteria in which to mingle?
We found tools like Skype and Google Documents, formerly just helpful devices that made work a little easier, to be indispensable for organizing work. We spent long hours on conference calls, "meeting" at night, each in our own living rooms, or kitchens or backyards.
"It mostly came down to a lot of hard work," Joshua Jacobo, one of the founding members of the Truthout Organizing Committee said, adding, "The organizers worked over 80 hours a week for months in order to make this a reality and I'm thrilled that we did."
Although we didn't share a common workspace, we shared a common philosophy and common values - the same values that inspired us to care about Truthout itself.
"Even though the people who were organizing together never met during the process, their belief in Truthout helped them bond and trust one another," said Sari Gelzer, Truthout's newly elected unit chief. "The workers really felt this was the right direction, so they decided to take that leap."
As Truthout's staff moves forward into contract negotiations in the coming weeks, we are venturing into barely charted territory. Only a sprinkling of web sites have ever unionized.
"This union contract is really going to set a precedent," Gelzer said. "I look forward to seeing its impact not only on the labor movement, but also on the news industry as a whole, as it continues to transition to online publications."
The Struggle for Card Check
Not all workplaces enjoy the right to unionize by card check alone.
Under current law, the process of unionization begins when at least 30 percent of workers sign blank cards from an existing union, indicating they want to join. Employers can then decide whether to recognize the union right away, or to require that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hold a secret-ballot election. During the interim period between "card check" and election - sometimes lasting weeks or months - employers often pressure, coerce and even fire employees attempting to organize. Many unionizing efforts collapse during this period, crushed by fear and intimidation.
However, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), currently awaiting a vote in Congress, would alter unionization procedures, adding a "card check" requirement. It would demand that employers and the NLRB recognize a union if the majority of employees have signed cards.
The card check provision in EFCA can be compared to the "public option" in the health care reform bill, according to Lunzer. It's a vital part of the legislation, but Congress members are under extreme pressure from business interests to cut it from the bill.
Lunzer said it's unclear where card check stands currently.
"Before the Senate went on recess, it looked like the card check provision was going to be removed," Lunzer said. "But the movement - from the top down - has said there is a plan to go forward, to get Employee Free Choice and not let it get watered down to the point that it is basically destroyed. There's a new dedication to getting it done."
The Truthout unionization effort was bolstered by a commitment from our Board of Directors to abide by an organization-wide card check as the only step necessary for union recognition.
"The Truthout Board of Directors needs to be acknowledged for their very progressive role in all this," organizer Duffy said. "The Board is a group of people that truly do live their values."
Today, as Congress returns from recess, the labor movement's eyes are trained on EFCA. For labor-sympathetic journalists following the story, it's an anxiety-filled wait. What's at stake for us is not only the right to unionize fairly, but also the opportunity to exercise our true freedom of speech: to tell it like it is, without fear, not only on our pages but also on the job. With freedom of speech comes the power to investigate, to ask tough questions, to keep democracy going strong.
"Journalists are inquisitive people who want to know why things are the way they are," Duffy said. "I hope to God that never goes away."