Newspaper Guild Representative Mike Burrell and Truthout Board Treasurer Steve Sugarman shake hands. (Photo: Caleb Jacobo)
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.
After the official recognition of Truthout's union, Truthout Board Treasurer Steve Sugarman (left) and organizer Joshua Jacobo shake hands. (Photo: Caleb Jacobo)
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.