Skip to navigationSkip to content
Getty Images/Spencer Platt
Had it.
PULLING POWER

Union pushes at places like YouTube and WeWork could transform white-collar work

When people feel exhausted and demoralized at their jobs, they’re often advised to meditate, adopt an exercise routine, or go on vacation. But just in time for Labor Day, In These Times writer Kayla Blado offered up a different—and far more radical—prescription for unhappy Americans: “Your best defense against burnout isn’t self-care, it’s joining together with your colleagues to build power collectively at your workplace.”

It would be an exaggeration to say that unions are making a comeback in the US. In 2018, 10.5% of wage and salary workers in the US belonged to a union—about 14.7 million people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As Caleb Crain documents in a recent article for The New Yorker, a confluence of factors—from Ronald Reagan’s famous busting of an air-traffic controllers strike in 1981 to federal deregulation, offshoring, automation, and corruption cases—have led the labor movement to have much less power today than it did in its mid-century heyday.

Occupation% of US employees represented by unions in 2018
Protective service occupations35.5%
Construction and extraction occupations18.0%
Professional and related occupations17.4%
Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations16.2%
Transportation and material moving occupations15.7%
Production occupations12.8%
Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations10.2%
Office and administrative support occupations9.9%
Healthcare support occupations8.9%
Personal care and service occupations6.2%
Management, business, and financial operations occupations5.3%
Food preparation and serving industry occupations4.6%
Sales and related occupations3.9%
Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations3.0%

That said, support for unions is on the upswing in the US. A 2019 Gallup survey found that 64% of 1,522 respondents said they were in favor of unions—among the highest levels of support the nation has shown for organized labor in 50 years, and up 16 percentage points from a historic low in 2009. And a look at recent events offers evidence that a shift toward a more union-friendly future is afoot—particularly in white-collar professions.

In fact, the future of the labor movement may well lie in white-collar work, according to Bret Schulte, who teaches journalism at the University of Arkansas. Writing for Slate, he argues that the professional middle class, “growing disillusioned with its prospects” in late-capitalist America, is increasingly demonstrating an interest in collective actions, ranging from the Google walkouts to traditional union organizing in newsrooms, universities, libraries, nonprofits, and beyond.

To explore this hypothesis in honor of Labor Day, we looked at how some white-collar workers, from Kickstarter employees to BuzzFeed journalists and Instagram memers, are exploring a variety of routes to collective organizing. While employees’ specific concerns and tactics may differ from company to company, these examples reveal that they share at least one fundamental, common desire: to gain back some sense of empowerment in an economy that often makes workers feel underpaid, overworked, and not in control.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

What’s happening: Recently employees at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh formed a collective bargaining unit with the United Steelworkers union. Roughly 60% of the 321 eligible employees, including librarians, librarian assistants, clerks, and IT technicians, voted in favor of the union.

The key demands: According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, staff concerns include a cost-of-living salary increase, equitable raises, and healthcare benefits, as well as “getting a seat at the table” in budget discussions that will impact the library’s future.

Why it matters: The library workers’ decision to unionize is noteworthy for several reasons—not least because Andrew Carnegie, the steel titan and founder of the library system, famously used brutal union-busting tactics against steel mill workers and forced them to take pay cuts of up to 60% after the failed, deadly Homestead Strike of 1892. The move could also encourage more individual county libraries to consider forming unions of their own. Between 21% and 26% of US librarians are union members, according to union data.

Instagram meme creators

What’s happening: In April 2019, Instagram’s meme creators banded together to form IG Meme Union Local 69-420, a collective aimed at giving them more bargaining power with the social-media behemoth for which they generate revenue and engagement.

The key demands: Writing for The Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz reports that union members’ demands include “a more open and transparent appeals process for account bans; a direct line of support with Instagram, or a dedicated liaison to the meme community; and a better way to ensure that original content isn’t monetized by someone else.”

Why it matters: The Meme Union isn’t recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, but it’s nonetheless using standard organizing practices in an effort to get more sway with Instagram. In this way, the union offers insight into how millennials and members of Gen Z whose work falls outside of labor protections—whether because they are freelancers, independent contractors, or unpaid workers—may shape the future of the labor movement with collectives that allow them to nonetheless put pressure on powerful companies that profit from their output.

BuzzFeed

What’s happening: In February, BuzzFeed workers announced their decision to unionize with the News Guild of New York. The move came less than a month after the company laid off 15% of its roughly 1,450 employees, a development indicative of the turbulent current state of the digital news industry. BuzzFeed management finally recognized the union in July after a months-long deadlock that prompted employees to stage a walkout.

Key demands: The union’s demands include “due process for termination, a diverse newsroom, reasonable severance amid layoffs, a competitive 401(k), rights to our creative works, and affordable health insurance,” as well as that management fix unfair pay disparities and extend protections and benefits to “permalancers,” according to its site.

Why it matters: BuzzFeed’s path to unionization is representative of a broader trend in journalism, kicked off by Gawker back in 2015. In the years since, a wave of newsrooms have opted to unionize, including legacy titles (the New Yorker, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic) as well as newer digital publications such as Vox, Vice Media, Slate, Salon, Pitchfork, Refinery29, Quartz, and the podcasting startup Gimlet Media. Writing for NiemanReports, former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse observes that the trend is in part a reflection of the industry’s volatility and corresponding concerns over job security and low wages. But he notes that there is also a shared desire among journalists to feel that they have a say in the direction of the newsrooms of which they are a part. 

Santander Bank 

What’s happening: Some 15,000 US tellers for Santander Bank attempted to unionize in 2017, led by the Committee for Better Banks (CBB), a workers group affiliated with the Communications Worker of America (CWA). Representatives of the group delivered a “neutrality letter” to the Spanish bank’s US headquarters in Boston, asking the company to publicly recognize workers’ rights to form a union. That effort failed, but CBB members have remained active at Santander, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and other institutions.

The key demands: The tellers asked for higher wages, a greater share of bank profits, and more secure, full-time jobs with benefits. “Crisp uniforms and polished storefronts aside, bank tellers are solidly low-wage employees,” Mic reported at the time, when the median wage for nearly half a million tellers in the US was $26,410. Now it’s $29,410, according to the latest government data. Four years ago, CBB found that one third of US bank tellers also required public assistance to get by. By contrast, in Europe and other countries where bank tellers are unionized, the profession is solidly middle class, Erin Mahoney, CBB coordinator, tells Quartz at Work.

Why it matters: This one may feel least intuitive to US readers: Organized labor inside the very engines of capitalism? Yes, the chances are slim. But bank employees are unionized in several countries, including in much of Europe, the UK, India, Australia, Argentina, and Brazil, Mahoney says. That’s why CBB targeted Santander: How can it deny its US employees the rights non-US employees have globally?

Importantly, union advocates believe that more empowered frontline bank employees could help correct questionable bank practices, including the kind of aggressive sales-goals campaigns that led to the Wells Fargo scandal, which only surfaced as a national story after the CWA and CBB worked with employees to research and expose the scope of the problem, says Mahoney. It’s customer-facing employees, and not unseen, well-paid executives, who are put in the position of carrying out questionable transactions. What’s more, US banks point to practices here to justify cutting costs elsewhere, so raising standards here could protect employees at global banks everywhere.

Riot Games

What’s happening: The global gaming industry is worth over $130 billion and its brands have developed doggedly loyal fans. But many of the people who actually make the games feel exploited in several ways. Mass layoffs are common and employees are worked to the point of exhaustion during what’s known as “crunch” periods in the lead-up to a new release. That’s when work weeks can stretch to 80 hours or more. (A Rockstar Games co-founder recently bragged that employees worked 100-hour weeks in the crunch before Red Dead Redemption 2 hit the market.) Companies, like Riot Games, have also been accused of attempting to silence women who have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment and unfair pay. Though not unionized, employees at Riot organized a strike this spring to voice their complaints and express solidarity with the claimants. Meanwhile, a UK-based labor activist group, Game Workers Unite! (GWU), is making inroads with gaming employees looking to form local unions in the US, Canada, the UK, and other countries.

The key demands: Employees want less precarious employment and a voice in setting pay scales, hours, and benefits, according to the GWU website. Unionizing, supporters say, would also allow employees to hold companies accountable for harassment, unfair pay practices, and other civil and human rights issues.

Why it matters: Unions could force gaming to grow up. It may feel like a young sector, but gaming has had about four decades to develop practices that would better serve workers and their families. Part of the reason employees haven’t already organized is because of the cache attached to working for big publishers. Graeme Kirkpatrick, a UK-based scholar who studies video games, argues that “people who work in the games industry are, invariably, invested in gaming as a cultural practice,” the New Republic reports, meaning this isn’t about “work,” it’s about passion. But that may be changing. On its website, GWU explains that after surviving a crunch, for instance, “[p]eople have described experiencing stomach pains, memory loss, extreme anxiety, loss of family time, divorce, severe burnout, and more.”

Even devotees have to admit that doesn’t sound glamourous.

Kickstarter

What’s happening: Employees at the tech company, a platform for crowdfunding creative projects and product prototypes, moved to unionize in March, calling their union Kickstarter United, an affiliate of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU.) Media reports have since said that organizers have failed to find support for their campaign among senior staff. (Quartz at Work contacted Kickstarter and OPEIU for comment.)

Key Demands: Kickstarter United wants “to safeguard and enrich Kickstarter’s charter commitments to creativity, equity, and a positive impact on society,” according to a memo published by The Verge. It also wants to “promote [Kickstarter’s] collective values: inclusion and solidarity, transparency and accountability” and secure “a seat at the table.”

Why it matters: If Kickstarter unionizes, it would be the first major tech company to do so, meaning its route to unionization, and organizing structure, could become a Silicon Valley model.

The group’s demands reflect what other tech workers toying with unionizing are seeking: a voice in how their powerful employers shape their lives at work, within the industry, and the larger world. Tech’s biggest names may pay well, but they are infamous for excluding certain groups in hiring practices and not protecting employees from harassment, while coddling offenders. Then there are larger ethical questions raised by their products. Should these firms be partnering with the Pentagon to develop facial-recognition technology? Or assisting ICE and Customs and Border Patrol with data management? These are the kinds of emotional topics that have sparked collective walkouts and petitions from employees at Amazon, Salesforce, Google, and Microsoft in the past few years. Of course, opposition to a wider tech unionization movement could be fierce. As Quartz reporter Michael Coren noted in a 2017 story on the topic, “Silicon Valley’s attitude toward unionizing has vacillated between disdain and outright hostility.” Employees who are paid handsomely may also not see themselves as union material, and some tech workers see their bosses as peers, not adversaries.

That said, supporters also imagine that the sway employees already hold as highly skilled workers, combined with widespread disdain for many of the extreme policies of the Trump administration, and frustration with toxic company cultures, might mean more software developers and tech professionals will indeed see the need for reliable representation.

WeWork

What’s happening: In an IPO filing ahead of its planned listing next month, WeWork listed the possibility of employees striking as a potential risk factor. That raises several questions: Is there labor unrest at WeWork? And is the real estate company concerned?

“If our employees were to engage in a strike or other work stoppage or interruption, our business, results of operations, financial condition and liquidity could be materially adversely affected,” the S-1 filing notes.

“Although we believe that our relations with our employees are good, if disputes with our employees arise, or if our workers engage in a strike or other work stoppage or interruption, we could experience a significant disruption of, or inefficiencies in, our operations or incur higher labor costs, which could have a material adverse effect on our business, results of operations, financial condition and liquidity. In addition, some of our employees outside of the United States are represented or may seek to be represented by a labor union or workers’ council.”

The key demands: It is not clear why WeWork listed this risk factor, but what’s clear is that the company has faced a slew of labor issues. Earlier this year, two former executives accused the company of gender and age discrimination, with one lawsuit describing WeWork as having a “frat-boy culture that starts at the top.” In 2015, WeWork cleaners protesting over wages led to the company announcing that it would use unionized contractors for janitorial services at its locations in New York and Boston.

Why it matters: As WeWork continues to expand, there could be a real concern if large groups of employees around the world decide to strike, law securities experts say. The real estate company has 528 locations around the world.

The risk of employee strikes surfacing in WeWork’s financial disclosures not only signals to investors the potential impact on the company’s operational and financial condition—but also how meaningful strikes have become. In addition, this may influence other companies planning to go public in the near future.

Guggenheim Museum

What’s happening: In the latest in a series of unionizing efforts by workers at prestigious art institutions, workers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum voted to join Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers in early June. This is the museum’s first bargaining unit

The key demands: The move to unionize is driven by workers wanting better wages and working conditions. Art handler Eric Heist told online art magazine Hyprallergic that he decided to take part in unionizing after seeing a pay discrepancy between art handlers at the Guggenheim and those at competing institutions. According to Heist, many of his colleagues make $25 per hour while art installers at the MoMA PS1 earn $32.50 per hour. He also told the New York Times that some workers were asked to work seven days straight without overtime pay.

In an email to the Times, the museum’s director Richard Armstrong wrote that he acknowledges the economic hardships but point out that the museum’s revenue is below that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Why it matters: The union will represent around 140 full-time and on-call employees including art handlers, exhibition construction workers, as well as facilities employees such as maintenance mechanics and engineers. This follows similar moves made by employees at the New Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.

YouTubers

What’s happening: In 2017, YouTube was hit by the “Adpocalypse.” Advertisers pulled out from the platform after their products were featured next to controversial videos. In response, YouTube changed its advertising rules, to give brands more control over where their ads appeared. This, in turn, drew protests from YouTube video creators, who were losing revenue. A German vlogger formed the YouTube union in 2018, in hopes of avoiding such sudden upheavals on the platform. The union, which now has more than 23,000 members, received an invitation to YouTube’s offices in Germany, although the company recently told The Verge it will not negotiate with the vloggers.

The key demands: The union’s primary demand is for more transparency in YouTube’s decision-making. They want the company to publish the criteria that affect monetization and video views, as well as clear explanations for individual decisions punishing creators (which parts of a violating video exactly violated YouTube’s rules, for example). They want a qualified human to explain these individual decisions, not a vague message from a bot. And when there is a dispute, it should be resolved through an independent mediator. YouTubers also demand that their voice be represented in an advisory board of sorts.

Why it matters: This year, the YouTubers joined forces with Europe’s largest trade union, giving them significant leverage. Together, they accuse YouTube of violating the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation law, because the platform collects data on videos uploaded to the platform, but users don’t know how this data is used. This could land the company in trouble. More broadly, the movement is trying to show that being an internet creator is not merely a vain pursuit of fame, but an actual job that requires a lot of work—which should come with workers’ rights. Especially when a global giant is making money off of their labor.