Unions and Blogs

Nov 12 2007 Published by under Do Something, Misc

Two unions representing professions involved in the entertainment industry are on strike right now - Broadway stagehands in New York, and writers for both big- and little-screen productions nationwide. These strikes - especially the writers' one - have stirred up some discussion about online writing in general (and blogging in particular), and how non-traditional writers might benefit from unionization. From fellow Scienceblogger Chris Mooney:

Meanwhile, on to bloggers, who are entirely dismissed as workers ... because blogging is somehow supposed to be fun or a hobby. Well, guess what: Some people do not want to blog as a hobby; and some media companies are starting to make serious money off the work of bloggers. To me, and especially in light of all the attention bloggers have gotten in the last few years (they've been credited with playing crucial roles in elections, for instance), this suggests they should be taken much more seriously and treated as workers just like anyone else in many cases. Furthermore, just like freelancers, just like screenwriters, bloggers would benefit by having some sort of standards set in their industry. For one, those who are "professionals" should be fairly compensated for their quality work for blogs that are monetized--that bring in viewership or revenues.

There's a far broader and more resonant point here: An increasing amount people these days are choosing careers that do solely depend on what they create for the Internet. It's not just bloggers. Just look at job listings these days in the areas of media or journalism.

The points that Chris raises there are interesting. Should bloggers be considered to be workers, and if they are, are there benefits to organizing the labor? I don't think there's an easy answer to that question. There are some compelling arguments in favor of unionization in this case, and there are some compelling arguments against it.

Let's start by looking at what a union is and what a union does. At its most basic level, a union is a collection of workers who have banded together in an effort to get more from their employers. In most cases, the "more" is money, but it can just as easily be time off, general working conditions, reasonable hiring and firing, or any number of other things related to the job. That's the collective bargaining side of organized labor. Unions can (and often do) also provide the means for the workers to work together to provide long-term security for each other through union health care and pension plans. That's the safety in numbers side of organized labor.

Now let's look at what, for lack of a better word, I'll refer to as the blogging "industry." This "industry" produces basically a single product: written commentary that is normally hosted on a website and which can normally be read by the general public at no charge. This product is being provided through any number of arrangements. Here's a quick (non-comprehensive) list:

  • Hobby blogging - people who write about things that interest them because that think it's fun. This category includes most Facebook, MySpace, Bolgspot, and WordPress blogs and bloggers. Most people who blog as a hobby either don't get paid at all, or pick up a very small amount of money from Google ads and/or bookstore affiliate programs.
  • Advocacy blogging - people who write primarily about specific issues. There's a lot of overlap between this group and the hobby blogging group. People who write for advocacy blogs and don't write as a hobby are typically employed by groups who work on the issue full-time, using both online and more old-school tactics. Political candidate blogs fall into this category.
  • News blogging - people who write for news blogs usually do so as an adjunct to traditional newswriting. News blogs can be found throughout journalism, at every level from the big cable news channels to weekly neighborhood papers. Sometimes the blog articles are nothing more than ads for upcoming features. In other cases, they're every bit as much a source for interesting, original news as anything else provided by that outlet.
  • (Semi-)Professional blogging - this is another broad category. Mostly, when I think of professional or semi-professional bloggers, I'm thinking about two groups of people. In one group are bloggers who are paid by someone specifically for writing a blog. In the other are bloggers who may be largely self-employed, but who derive significant income from blogging.

At this point, there are probably a few people who are ready to jump on me, so let me take a couple of seconds and get some disclaimers out of the way. The list above is in no way, shape, or form intended to be comprehensive, authoritative, or anything other than something that I put together off the top of my head. There are obviously going to be a lot of blogs and bloggers who don't fit into any of those four groupings, and the list should not be used for anything more than the purposes of this post.

Now that we've looked at what unions do, and what some rough groups of bloggers do, I think we might have enough information to start thinking about whether bloggers could benefit from unionization, and how something like that would work.

The only real answer to the first question is, "it depends." I think it's pretty clear that most hobby bloggers aren't going to particularly benefit from unionization. These are people who, for the most part, have secure sources of income from other sources, who blog for the sheer joy of it, and who don't have much in the way of long range plans for blogging. Most issue advocacy bloggers probably won't benefit much from unionization either. Some of the people with blogs that are issue-oriented are doing it as a hobby. Others are doing it as a small part of their overall efforts to work on the issue. Some news bloggers and most of the (semi-)professional groups, on the other hand, probably would benefit from organizing. Many of these people write for a living, and the income that they gain from blogging is as much a part of that as income from magazine writing or book royalties. None of that includes the "safety in numbers" union benefits, and the freelancers would probably also benefit from the security that comes from having a general idea of the money that they'll get from different kinds of writing.

The answer to the "how will this work" question is going to be a lot harder to figure out.

With so many different types of blogging and bloggers out there, it's going to be a real challenge finding some way of putting together a system for organizing labor that will effectively provide the benefits and protections of organized labor but will not unreasonably interfere with the free-flowing exchange of ideas that characterizes blogging. Whatever is settled on is going to have to be very flexible. I really don't know what this would look like - ultimately, I suspect that it'll be as influenced as much by musicians unions as writers' guilds.

But would certainly be interesting to try and see if something like that could be made to work.

2 responses so far

  • Janne says:

    Perhaps your concept of "union" is rather broader than mine, but apart from people getting a monthly or weekly paycheck specifically for blogging, I don't see the for of a union as the most appropriate form, and in that particular case probably a more general writers' or journalists' union is more appropriate than a blogger one.
    A "bloggers union" would be like a "travelers union". It's too broad for any kind of targeted activity. The term encompasses so vastly different activities in so many fields that trying to come up with some general guidelines for wages or benefits - what unions are about - is impossible.
    I'd say that in general an association (like professional associations in other fields) would be a better form for self-employed or side-income bloggers. You'd have many of the same kind of services on offer (legal counsel for instance) but leave the specific negotiation issues aside.
    Oh, despite your warning - I think you did leave out one group that is relevant here: people who do blogging as an integral part of their (non-writing) work. The CEO using a blog to communicate with shareholders; support engineer using a blog to inform about system status, issues and upcoming downtime to their customers; researchers blogging about their work as part of their outreach activities; software development people keeping potential customers up to date on the process and soliciting feedback. They're all getting paid to blog, but blogging is not what they do. An association would probably be the best for for them as well.

  • JN says:

    I think you're missing something crucial: who is the employer that bloggers - as a union - would negotiate with? My understanding is that many bloggers are self-employed. Those who aren't (e.g. those who blog as a normal part of their work) would probably be more appropriately grouped with other employees of their employer. I have no idea what your arrangement with Seed is. If the Sciencebloggers are employed by Seed, then it would make sense for you to organize a Sciencebloggers Union. But a Catbloggers Union, or some catch-all bloggers union wouldn't really make sense absent a common employer. Assuming you charter a union, one of the first steps to establishing collective bargaining rights is to collect signed cards or petition signatures indicating support for unionization among employees of a given employer, and then filing with the National Labor Relations Board for an election to determine whether a majority of employees want to be represented by the union in question. You can see how, in the absence of a common employer, this would be impossible.
    A professional association might be a better way to go. And there would be nothing to preclude the professional association from establishing a collective bargaining division to handle bargaining and representation where appropriate.
    Actually, social movement unionism could be seen as kind of like the professional association approach, but with a more militant attitude.