Condé Nast’s Big Union Moment and the Plight of the Permalancers

The announcement that eleven titles representing 500 employees have formed a union comes as welcome news to the publisher’s ranks of “contingent workers” who work full-time for meager wages and without employment protections

Before Tuesday’s announcement that a new union had been organized at Condé Nast, representing the more than 500 employees of eleven magazines, including VogueBon AppétitVanity Fair, and GQ, the only four titles at the publishing giant to previously unionize (The New YorkerWired, Pitchfork, and Ars Technica) had been quarantined together on the 23rd floor of One World Trade Center. Some employees think their proximity to each other was more the result of corporate scheming than pure chance. “It’s not coincidence,” Lainna Fader, The New Yorker’s head of audience development and a leader in its union, said of the office plan, “but I don’t know what benefit they thought it would yield. I mean, how is that going to make anything even easier for them?”

Like college students learning to live with their assigned dorm mates, the four titles have had issues sharing their cramped quarters. Wired’s conference room, for instance, does double duty as Pitchfork’s listening room, which in turn is a point of contention for some of The New Yorker staff who don’t appreciate hearing music blasting from it in the middle of the day. But it’s also produced a kind of solidarity among the rank and file. “It just makes it easier for us to talk to each other,” Fader said.

Unionization broke its containment zone on Tuesday morning when Condé management received a letter signed by more than 350 employees requesting that they recognize the new union. A statement from a Condé Nast spokesperson sent to The Fine Print said, “We plan to have productive and thoughtful conversations with them over the coming weeks to learn more.” As a wave of union avatars washed over the company Slack, some of the most vulnerable employees at the company wondered if this might represent a coming reprieve from the brutal conditions under which they labored.

The use of permalancers, who work full-time alongside other Condé employees but are paid via contracting agencies at lower wages and with few benefits — and whose Slack profiles, by default, label them “Contingent Worker” — has declined at the company in recent years, though they’re still found among the fact-checkers and are well represented in the Condé Nast Entertainment video unit. The new union hopes to repeat the feat The New Yorker union performed after its recognition in 2018 by convincing the company to transfer the permalancers into full-time Condé Nast positions.

According to a testimonial on the union site by Condé Nast Entertainment coordinating video producer Thomas Werner, permalancers at the company are “in a nebulous position but comprise almost 50 percent of the food video team. They are welcomed to the team in a fanfare of emails while simultaneously told that when it comes down to it, they are not team members. To be clear, they work the same number of hours, directly report to a manager, and their work is subject to evaluation in the same way a staffer is.” He added, “Depending on a permalance workforce is a shortcut for the company to avoid the financial implications of staff roles. It’s a Band-Aid that’s being used to construct entire departments.”

The outsourcing firm that the Condé permalancers work for has changed so frequently that employees regularly use old names interchangeably with the current one. Once upon a time, they worked for the relatively optimistically named Career Blazers. Later they worked for Global Employment Solutions. That gave way to Ettain, which was again renamed this year, it was announced on February 18, as “Experis a Manpower Group.” The names have inspired little confidence even among the staff who don’t work for them. “They’re all bad,” said Fader. “Global Employment Solutions — it doesn’t get much more dystopian than that.” (Disclosure: this reporter worked for GES as a fact-checker at GQ between 2017 and 2019.)

For the permalancers, though, the company name has always been among the least dystopian parts of their experience. Sophie Kemp worked as a permalancer at Condé for two years after graduating from Oberlin in 2018, first at Pitchfork, where she was an editorial fellow tasked with fact-checking, and then at Vogue as an assistant to the digital creative director. “I was literally getting paid $15 an hour minimum wage with no benefits,” she told The Fine Print. “Actually, when I was at Pitchfork, it was before the $15 minimum wage, and I was getting paid $12.50 an hour to work full time.” She estimates that she made less than $30,000 a year.

The hourly rate wasn’t as bad for Kyle Paoletta, who fact-checked for GQ as a permalancer between 2016 and 2018, but he wasn’t satisfied with his work environment either. Though he recalled conversations with other checkers about how much better their lives could be if they unionized, he never felt much solidarity with his fellow magazine workers. “I really felt very held at arm’s length as a fact-checker. There were editors I had great relationships with,” he said, “but, overall, I feel like most of the masthead treated us like second class and were not super interested in engaging with us. I barely felt like I was a part of GQ, let alone Condé Nast, the global media conglomerate.”

In 2017, when fact-checkers for many of the Condé publications were moved away from the rest of the staff of the magazines and corralled on a floor with the copy editors as part of the newly formed Content Integrity Group, or CIG, pronounced like the carcinogenic stick, Paoletta’s alienation was exacerbated. “If I ever had an aspiration of going from freelancing to assistant editor and working my way up, I think after that happened, I was like, ‘Oh, no, that path does not exist here,’” he said. “They are not interested in us as anything aside from this kind of functional labor.”

One of the final straws for Paoletta came in October 2017, when GQ’s research manager sent an email out to the checkers announcing that the magazine was going down to 11 issues in 2017, and the November close was canceled. “All of us were just like, ‘Shit, we don’t have work for this month.’ You just had no protection whatsoever,” he recalled. “That definitely made me be like, ‘Okay, I need to get a real job. I can’t do this shit anymore.’”

For Kemp, the barrage of permalance work helped push her out of media and into an MFA at Columbia. “It’s really bad. It makes people not want to continue to work in media because it’s totally not feasible. Even if you’re like me and didn’t have student loans, you just can’t afford to live off of minimum wage and have no job security.” After leaving Condé, she took a better-paid permalance job at Vice. When she was laid off during the pandemic and faced the prospect of applying for more permalance work, she started looking for other options. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, it just feels so exhausting to have to work for another fake shell company in the Midwest. I just can’t do it anymore,’” she said. “I’d rather make more money and do writing that is meaningful to me and isn’t SEO articles about shoes.”

Some of The New Yorker’s fact-checkers — routinely referred to as “legendary” by appreciative writers — were permalancers employed by GES before the magazine unionized in 2018. Along with others in the copy, social media, and editorial business departments, permalancers made up about 20 percent of the unit. “The classification changed directly as a result of bargaining. I don’t remember how long exactly, but it was one of our large wins about a year, maybe less, into our much longer contract negotiation process,” New Yorker Union unit chair Naib Mian told The Fine Print. “We were able to negotiate an end to the use of permalancers and all of the permalancers at The New Yorker were converted to full-time employees. (I think there were a couple of folks who weren’t converted because of visa issues).” The company folded on the issue so fast, Fader believes, because it was prima facie an unconscionable practice. “It’s pretty morally indefensible and we would have put up a huge fight over it,” she said. “It was such a big portion of our unit and people we work side by side with every day for years, and we were not going to let it go. I think they knew that.”

A spokesperson for The New Yorker disputed that those changes were due to negotiations with the union. “Conversations about the decision to convert freelance positions to staff ones began well before the New Yorker Union was even formed. The New Yorker was not only planning to make this change but was actively working to do so — it was not a result of negotiations.”

“Contract labor is an exploitative practice that allows companies to cut costs by hiring people without offering full benefits or health care. It also created a bureaucratic divide in the workforce, and individuals who were largely doing similar work had vastly different material realities as a result of their classification,” said Mian. “There are no longer permalancers hired by The New Yorker. Freelancers are occasionally hired, but on a truly freelance basis, and our Collective Bargaining Agreement has set out limitations on the use of freelance labor and the amount of time they can be hired as such until it would constitute having to be full-time.”

Fader is extremely excited to welcome all the new union members at the company. “Five hundred members is a really powerful force. We won an amazing contract with The New Yorker, Ars, and Pitchfork, and these new union members are going to get a contract building on our success. And when we renegotiate our contract, we’ll be building on that success,” she said. “So really, we’re raising standards for everybody at the company, which helps raise standards for the whole industry, so I’m very proud to be part of it.” As for the permalancers, she said, “We’re trying to get all those people the salaries and benefits they deserve, the credit for their service, all of that.”

Correction: This story originally mistakenly said that all of The New Yorker’s fact-checkers were permalancers prior to 2018, while only some were. It also incorrectly stated that New Yorker editor David Remnick asked Pitchfork staff to lower the volume of music in their listening room. He never has.