How the GMG Union Plotted a Course Through Turbulence

Now working for G/O Media, its third owner in six years, the union that kicked off the digital media unionizing wave is demonstrating the value of collective bargaining agreements in a precarious industry

Turmoil has been the norm for the GMG Union ever since it was originally formed in 2015 at Gawker Media, shortly before that company ceased to exist. In its seven-year history, the union has battled with three different owners — each more challenging than the last — while seeking to safeguard the editorial independence of the sites it represents — Gizmodo, Jezebel, Jalopnik, Kotaku, Lifehacker, and The Root — from corporate encroachment. The agreement reached on March 6 after a six-day strike between the union and G/O Media, which is owned by the Boston-based private equity firm Great Hills Partners, marks something of a stalemate between the two warring factions, and comes as a relief to staffers concerned about maintaining their union protections, considered some of the strongest in digital media. Amid resignations, new changes to the union structure, and the omnipresent threat of another sale, an uneasy future is still ahead. But, ever since the GMG Union kicked off a wave of unionization among New York media outlets, their fights have often foreshadowed what other workplaces will go through.

At 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 5, Susan Rinkunas, a reporter for Jezebel, was sitting on her couch at home in New York when she received a Slack message to a group of Gizmodo Media Union members on the bargaining committee. “I was trying not to think about it,” Rinkunas said of the union’s ongoing negotiations with G/O Media. But the message said that the company’s lawyers had sent an email out to the union, which had then been on strike for five days — potentially a good omen that the union’s demands had been accepted. When she and several other bargaining committee members excitedly jumped onto a Zoom call, though, they found that the email was only a formalized version of the counterproposal the company had made to the union at 1 a.m. that morning, during one of seven marathon bargaining sessions that began in late January ahead of the contract’s expiration at the end of February.

A new contract was not yet on the horizon. “The company came back and said, ‘We’re so close, yet so far away. We have made a lot of progress, but we’re too far away on money,” said Rinkunas, adding that the union was asking for $3,000 more as a baseline salary for G/O’s lowest-paid employees, above the $60,000 floor G/O proposed, which is in line with New York state law’s overtime exemption threshold. Frustrated, though not totally defeated, the bargaining committee members drew up a package to float verbally to G/O, framing it as a return-to-work proposal: the provisions that the union would accept to end their strike. Their expectations for a response were low, and they continued planning the next strike event: a “field trip” to Boston to confront G/O Media’s CEO Jim Spanfeller in person. Then, just before noon on Sunday, March 6, the union received word that the company had accepted the proposal — the final twist in a frenzied week of striking, bargaining, and vocal online organization.

G/O Media did not respond to requests for comment.

The GMG Union’s origins go back to June 2015, when the editorial staff of voted to unionize with the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE). The decision stemmed from a happy coincidence: Hamilton Nolan, a Gawker staff writer who ended up leading the union drive, had been talking to Ursula Lawrence, an organizer from the WGAE who was looking for advice and flipped the conversation back on her. “I was like, why don’t you try to organize us?” Nolan said. Nolan is now a WGAE Council member and frequently writes on labor issues for The Guardian and In These Times.

At the time, “management” would have been Gawker’s owner, the British entrepreneur Nick Denton, whom Nolan described as a “mad scientist of the media” and who eagerly assented to the union drive. “He was crazy, but he was crazy in some of the right ways — he cared about journalism, about telling the truth, for whatever his flaws were,” said Nolan. For Gawker Media staffers, unionization was less about correcting particular workplace grievances than setting a precedent for other digital media companies, mimicking the organization efforts undertaken by employees at traditional outlets. “Generally speaking, Gawker Media is a very good place to work,” Nolan wrote in April 2015. “There are plenty of companies in this industry whose workers could desperately use the help of a union.”

Gawker Media was also in the middle of a legal battle that would bankrupt the company. After a 2016 verdict in a case filed by Hulk Hogan, and funded by billionaire conservative activist Peter Thiel, most of the company — with the exception of — was sold to the media conglomerate Univision. But because of the successorship provision in its first contract, ratified in March 2016, the union carried over in the sale. The division was renamed the Gizmodo Media Group, conveniently allowing the union to keep its GMG acronym unchanged.

When the time came to negotiate a new contract in early 2019, Univision, then facing massive amounts of debt and seeking a buyer for the sites, proved intransigent. “We were such a small part of Univision, and we weren’t that important to them,” said Nolan. Univision shied away from agreeing to renew the successorship provision, likely concerned that potential buyers would be scared off by the prospect of inheriting a union, and behaved cagily about the sale. “Even though we knew that the company was for sale at the time, Univision was like, you don’t need that,” Nolan added. “We were like, yes, we clearly do, because we’re for sale.”

The union won the successorship fight in March 2019, narrowly avoiding a planned strike. Great Hill Partners swooped in the following month to buy the Gizmodo Media Group sites from Univision, forming G/O Media. From the outset, Spanfeller — described by a G/O employee cited in a 2019 Daily Beast article as a “man with house slippers and no plan” — has been the source of significant consternation over allegations of corporate interference allowing business interests and profitability concerns to bleed over into editorial operations.

“The editorial freedom provisions that we had in the contract were a big deal,” said Nolan, referring to a clause in the original 2015 contract, reproduced in the 2016 contract, stipulating that “decisions about editorial content (e.g., whether to post a story or the story’s content, headline or placement) may only be made by editorial.” “It was about keeping the business side out of sticking their hand in editorial, and I think under Univision and Spanfeller, they really wanted to be able to freak with the editorial side.”

In 2019, Spanfeller was said to have encouraged staff members at Jalopnik and Kotaku to work closely with advertisers. Stephen Totilo, then the editor-in-chief of Kotaku, alleged that Spanfeller asked him to allow a games salesperson to sit in on meetings that he considered journalistic interviews. Those claims, and various similar ones at other sites, led 97 percent of the bargaining unit to declare a vote of no confidence in Spanfeller in January 2020. By neglecting to help negotiate new terms of “editorial integrity,” they said, G/O was “furthering a totally avoidable but nonetheless catastrophic rift between staff and management.”

That “catastrophic rift” triggered a wave of resignations, starting in 2019 when the entire staff of the sports site Deadspin quit in protest of Spanfeller’s mandate to “stick to sports.” It continued through to last year, when the vast majority of staffers at Jezebel and The Root resigned en masse, many expressing displeasure with editorial policies favoring advertisers, brands, and celebrities put in place by new top-ranking editors hired by Spanfeller. “Univision was more incompetent,” said Nolan. “But when they sold it, I’d say it went from incompetent to actively malevolent, trying to wear down and destroy protections. I think Spanfeller cared about money and nothing else.”

Unsurprisingly, protecting editorial independence became a hotly contested part of the new GMG Union contract during negotiations earlier this month. “Editorial independence was one of the provisions in the contract that in the first couple bargaining sessions, the company was saying, this is a big deal. For us, this is a bright line,” Rinkunas said. “We know that executives at the company suggest content ideas. It happens all the time. They wanted to have more control over content than they currently do.” Rinkunas credited the bargaining process with helping the union to retain the editorial independence clause and add a new, more specific provision.

In addition to adhering to the G/O Editorial Policy (which says that “the editorial mission of our sites is to tell the truth, beholden to none”), both management and G/O employees must follow the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which asks journalists to “deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.” After some heated back-and-forth, G/O also agreed to keep in the long-running successorship clause — an indication that the company might be sold again in the future, though it has lately been profitable for Great Hill. “Initially, this was something that they said was also a big deal, and we ended up keeping it,” Rinkunas said.

However, one part of the contract is strikingly new and speaks to a significant cultural shift under Spanfeller. All of the current editors-in-chief of G/O sites — all of whom Spanfeller hired — have been designated as management, which means they are no longer members of the union. “That was something that the company made quite clear that they wanted a change on,” Rinkunas said. “We absolutely value our EICs. But at the same time, this was not an issue that a majority of the unit was willing to remain on strike over. So it is something that we understood to not be necessarily a priority for the majority of the union.”

Back in 2016, though, EICs, then known as site leads, were all included in the union, reflecting a less hierarchical structure and a neater division between the editorial and business sides. “Everybody was friends,” said Nolan. “We knew all those people very well. As time goes on, and the company gets sold over and over again, there’s a lot of turnover, and that might become less true.” With EICs out of the union, “it’s a slightly different dynamic now,” Rinkunas said. “They don’t have quite the same protections as other union members.”

But if today’s GMG Union looks different from its predecessors, one constant has held: a feeling, widely shared among members, that the union’s work will serve as an example for other media union shops, even if G/O changes hands and is thrust into turmoil once more. “We felt not just that we had eyeballs on us, but that it was important for us to mount as strong of a campaign as possible, which helps people at other shops across the industry who are negotiating their contracts,” said Rinkunas.

While reflecting on his role as an original organizer, Nolan said that he was proud to support the union from the sidelines and that striking had brought power to G/O’s embattled workers. “I didn’t know if they were going to take it that far,” he admitted. “So when they held that line and went on strike, I think they really showed the entire industry that that kind of thing is possible. I think that as time goes on, you’ll be able to say they were an inspiration for other places to be a little less scared of standing up for themselves in this industry.”