With today’s news that workers at Medium have overwhelmingly voted to form a union, it’s hard not to get a little mushy about the labour rights zeitgeist. From Amazon warehouse pickers to developers, workers are collectively deciding that they’re over the techno-utopian bullshit that’s taught us building things online is a labour of love, gig workers are reaping plentiful time off, writing on the internet isn’t a real job, and unions stifle innovation. Get in, loser, we’re unionising.
Medium is a democratic, subscription-based platform, created by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, who seemed, as of 2018, to view it as Twitter’s antiserum. Medium offers a platform to create subscriber-supported personal blogs and laudable investigative reporting. It’s an uncontroversial clean slate where Elizabeth Warren announced the end of her presidential run and Jeff Bezos alleged that the National Enquirer tried to blackmail him with dick pics. It offers a partner program that pays writers a little for views, but for the most part, it’s not yet a viable career path for independent writers, nor, as of 2019, was it profitable.
A spokesperson for the Medium Workers Union — which is primarily made up of engineers, but also editors, designers, and others — told Gizmodo that about 140 people would be eligible for union representation and that an overwhelming majority signed cards in favour of forming a union. The company doesn’t have to bargain with them unless workers get a majority pro-union vote through a National Labour Relations Board election. But given the broad support for an election itself, the union seems like a foregone conclusion, and they’ve asked that Medium voluntarily recognise them. Medium was not immediately available for comment.
Medium workers are joining a wave of organising efforts. After a long fallow period, a crop of digital newsrooms including this one, the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Bustle, the Onion, etc. Recently, Google workers have formed a minority union, and Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama are currently holding an NLRB election. Gig workers, deliberately deprived of employee protections, have been putting up a fight.
Medium, both a media organisation and digital platform, exists at an intersection of tech industries with overlapping problems. Newsrooms have seen buyouts and layoffs, and tech has shifted labour off to a shadow workforce of contractors and temps. The union’s website hints at a general feeling of uncertainty, stating: “the livelihood of our workers must not be contingent on the success of speculative projects.”
When I asked what the union meant by “speculative projects,” the spokesperson referred to the exhausting instability of the move-fast-and-break-things age.
“I think this is the nature of the tech industry and media, it’s not just about Medium,” they said. “Even about editorial and media…there’s pivoting, chasing the next big wave, and whatnot.” Ideas like workers’ solidarity and well-being have yet to catch up.
The Medium Workers Union doesn’t yet have a set of demands (again, they still have to get to a point where management agrees to bargain), but simply publicising the effort makes a statement which the spokesperson hopes will inspire other workers.