Digital Journalists in New York Vote to Unionize, Face Opposition from Publication

The digital newsroom at the cable and satellite news network Al Jazeera America (AJAM) voted on whether to unionize in late September 2015. A tally of the votes in early October showed that the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing, with 32 people voting in favor and five voting against. The journalists will become members of the News Guild of New York (NGNY), which has represented print journalists since the 1930s and has recently begun a major effort to support digital journalists who want to organize. Digital journalists at web publications like Salon, Gawker, and Vice have also recently voted to unionize. AJAM opposed the journalists’ unionization vote and has announced its intention to dispute the eligibility of some who participated in the vote.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., protects the right of employees to organize in order to engage in collective bargaining with the management of their employers. See 29 U.S.C. § 157. The law applies to most employers in the country, defining “employer” as almost any person or organization that employs people, except for the U.S. government, state and local governments, Federal Reserve Banks, and businesses subject to the Railway Labor Act (45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq.). 29 U.S.C. § 152(2). Labor unions, when they act as employers, are also subject to the NLRA. The law created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce its provisions.

AJAM, which is headquartered in Manhattan, launched in 2013 as a competitor to cable news networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. On September 3, 2015, a majority of employees in the network’s digital newsroom asked the company to voluntarily recognize the NGNY as their representative for collective bargaining purposes. Employees described “a troubling lack of transparency, inconsistent management, and lack of clear redress” from their employer. After several weeks, the company reportedly declined to grant the requested recognition to the union, which led to the employees’ vote.

The employees reportedly filed a petition with the NLRB at the same time as their initial announcement. This petition begins a process to obtain the NLRB’s approval of the employees’ vote. The NLRB generally tries to get the parties—i.e., the workers and management—to reach an agreement, but it can also hold formal adjudication hearings.

The vote began on September 29, 2015. Shortly afterwards, AJAM’s management released a statement saying that it “respects its employees’ right to unionize,” followed by general statements about “ensuring that all voices are heard” and “listen[ing] to what [the employees] have to say.” On October 6, the NLRB tallied the votes and announced the results. Thirty-two employees had voted in favor of unionizing, with only five voting against.

AJAM announced that it would challenge the vote, specifically alleging that nine employees who voted were not eligible to do so. It is reportedly claiming that those nine employees are “editors,” which means that they are “supervisors” within the organization. The NLRA defines supervisors as individuals with the authority to hire, fire, direct, and otherwise influence the employment of other employees in a way that “requires the use of independent judgment” and excludes them from eligibility to vote on joining a union. 29 U.S.C. §§ 152(2), (11). The NYNG is disputing AJAM’s claim.

If you need to speak to an attorney about an employment law or civil rights matter in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group online, at 973-781-1204, or at (646) 867-7997.

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