G/O Media Goes Out on Strike

GMG Union, originally the Gawker Media Union, has gone through three owners since it became the first New York digital outlet to organize in 2015, setting off a media unionizing wave

Members of the GMG Union weren’t expecting to find themselves outside the G/O Media headquarters in Midtown Manhattan on a blustery Tuesday morning, protest signs in hand. “We were just surprised that it’s come to this,” said Raphael Orlove, features editor for the automotive site Jalopnik, who has been part of the GMG Union—which now spans the G/O Media publications Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel, Kotaku, Lifehacker, and The Root—since it approved its first contract in 2016. “I mean, we presented [management] with every opportunity for a fair contract, and usually it comes together. This is all very easily averted.”

The GMG Union has seen plenty of turbulence since it started seven years ago. It began as the Gawker Media Union, which started the wave of unionization at New York media companies when it organized with the Writers Guild of 2015. They ratified their first contract in March 2016, shortly before Univision bought most of Gawker Media after it had been bankrupted in a Peter Thiel-funded lawsuit on behalf of Hulk Hogan. Since was not included in the sale and was subsequently shuttered, the sites were renamed the Gizmodo Media Group. But the union and the contract it had negotiated continued. The most recent collective bargaining agreement was ratified in March 2019, shortly before the company was handed off again, this time to Grant Hill Partners, a private equity firm, and renamed G/O Media. That agreement ran out yesterday, and when union members were unable to reach a new agreement with its latest owner on Monday night—citing stagnated wages, a lack of flexibility on return-to-office plans, and inadequate healthcare provisions, especially for trans employees—they declared a strike. Since Monday night, no new stories have been published on the sites, aside from posts written by the e-commerce team, and the social feeds have been silent. The union has asked readers to abstain from clicking on articles and freelancers not to pitch or file pieces.

Hours after the strike began, Orlove stood in front of the union’s modestly sized picket line—comprising less than 20 participants in all—on Sixth Avenue, nestled between Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art, outside of the G/O Media offices. In contrast to last November’s rally in front of The New York Times building a few blocks away that spilled out over the sidewalk and forced passersby to devise creative methods of circumvention, the GMG Union picket line occupied only a narrow oval on the avenue. Union members traded off between marching in the line and huddling in a nearby corner among half-empty pizza and donut boxes. Protest signs on thin cardboard (“How’s this for content?” one read) floated away in the wind, and tourists looked on curiously. A pedestrian could be forgiven for mistaking the rally for an impromptu, slow-moving street performance. “What are you doing?” one passerby shouted out. “We’re on strike!” a union member called back. “So many people are here supporting healthcare, and it’s not a very warm day today,” said Lisa Marie Segarra, a staff editor for gaming site Kotaku and a member of the union’s bargaining committee. “I really want management to recognize [us] and help.”

G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller was a frequent target of the picket line chants. It was Spanfeller’s mandate in November 2019 that its sports site Deadspin “stick to sports,” which sparked a mass staff exodus. After Spanfeller announced in early 2020 that the new Deadspin staff would be hired out of Chicago, thus breaking its ties to the New York-based GMG Union, 97 percent of its members cast a vote of no confidencein his leadership of the company. Two years later, that frustration was still on display. Union members cited Spanfeller as the impetus behind the strike. “This guy thinks he knows better, and here we are,” said Orlove. “This is just an example of us trying to show that we’re the ones who are on the ground, trying to run this operation.” Segarra pointed to a recent announcement from Spanfeller about G/O Media’s profitability as reason for the union’s requests to be granted. “Our CEO has said that we’ve been productive,” she said. “We can do a great job.”

After the picket started with general pro-labor chants (“What’s outrageous? Unfair wages!”), Spanfeller quickly became the dominant theme. “Jim Spanfeller, you’re no good, treat your workers like you should,” the marchers chanted jubilantly. “Jim Spanfeller, we will fight, we will shut down your website!” The next chant, delivered in slightly fainter tones, was more outwardly hostile: “We are the union, the fuck-you-Jim union!”

The sparse in-person turnout was perhaps a fitting sight for the first general strike by the first-ever union formed by a New York digital media newsroom. Pride of place in recent media union history was apparent among those who gathered in Midtown. While ownership and management have changed, the union’s members have grown accustomed to protections like compensation thresholds, a “just cause” dismissal clause, and gender-neutral parental leave. “When we were starting to unionize, there were still some of those questions: is this going to be good for us? Is it going to get anything done? And it pays, over and over again,” said Orlove. “We have a stronger bargaining position than if we were starting out now trying to unionize.”

Several hours into the strike, morale seemed high, even if the collective energy was flagging. Some of the picket line participants began checking their phones as they continued to march, now a little listless—evidence, perhaps, that the first digital media union’s first strike was destined to play out mainly online instead of in-person. The strike has garnered a steady stream of supportive tweets, and, by the end of the strike’s first day, the GoFundMe page for the union’s strike fund had raised nearly $35,500. At one point, a marcher announced that the GMG Union Twitter account had surpassed a certain threshold of followers, and others cheered. Then a few of them peeled off to continue scrolling through their phones on the side, the chanting growing quieter behind them.