On Monday morning, employees at Hearst Magazines were treated to an email from Troy Young, the president of the company, who had a casual, no-pressure reminder for them. "As I mentioned in my note before the holiday, we want to make sure everyone has the information they need to make a choice about the union," Young wrote. He then linked to a purported source of "information" about unionizing, namely a glossy, misinformation-packed and very aggressive anti-union site Hearst has created for its employees.
Employees at Hearst Magazines across 24 brands announced their intention to unionize with the Writers Guild of America East on November 11. (Full disclosure: WGA East represents some VICE employees, including the author.) The burgeoning union has also asked Hearst to voluntarily recognize them.
That seems deeply unlikely: the backlash from the company was swift, with numerous employees telling New York magazine that Hearst was conducting a "classic union-busting" campaign, in the words of one staffer. That campaign has reportedly included pressure to revoke the union cards employees have already signed (signaling their desire to join a union), as well as pulling each brand at the company in for meetings. (Better described as captive audience meetings, which the burgeoning union had warned staffers they would likely face.)
As described to New York, those meetings have contained classic anti-union misinformation, claiming, for instance, that Hearst would be unable to hand out raises if a union came to be, and making remarks that one staffer interpreted as "an invitation to quit:"
Annie White, a staff editor for Car & Driver, told New York that while her magazine’s meeting with Lewis, Young, and other members of management was not combative, Hearst representatives were “patronizing, a little paternalistic.”
“I think Troy [Young] literally said the words ‘we’re not union busting,’ and then came forward with all these classic union-busting talking points,” White added. The union was a third party, an outside force, they reportedly said, and they warned staff that Hearst may not be able to hand out raises outside a union contract. In White’s words, Young also described Hearst as a company with a “long-standing culture” which “is not for everyone, and if you don’t want to be part of this culture, that’s a decision that you have to make.” White said she did not interpret the remark as a threat, but as “an invitation to quit."
And now comes the microsite, which claims to inform Hearst employees of supposed union-centric facts, all of which are, once again, classic and quite ominous anti-union talking points, including claims that a union contract could take "years to negotiate," and that WGAE "officials" would negotiate "pay, benefits and working conditions" for the brands:
If the WGAE wins an election, it would need to negotiate a contract for its members with Hearst Magazines. All terms of pay, benefits, and working conditions would be up for discussion. No one can guarantee in advance what that contract would include. And decisions about WGAE bargaining priorities would be made by the union’s negotiating committee – which likely would be led by WGAE officials, not Hearst Magazines employees.
Conveniently omitted was that Hearst will be obligated to maintain the status quo during negotations, and that a bargaining committee is always, always made up of both WGAE organizers and employees at the companies they represent. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the bargaining committee at my previous employer, Gizmodo Media Group, during the time GMG employees were negotiating a contract with the company. This means I know, factually, that the claim that negotiating committtees are "led by WGAE officials" is false. )
The site goes through all the hits: Pretending that union membership takes away one's inalienable rights. Claiming that the dues are cripplingly expensive. Implying, without evidence, that employees have been pressured to sign union cards. And, inevitably, claiming that conditions at Hearst are already great, so why would you unionize? The site also links to an entire separate notice explaining how to cancel already-signed union cards, writing, "You may have signed up before you realized all the risks, costs and obligations involved — you may wonder whether it is possible to change your mind. You have asked about how you could get your cards back."
There is, again, no indication that Hearst employees are clamoring to cancel their union cards. What there is, in spades, is evidence that the company is terrified of the organizing power of a union. Now that's a fact to consider.
Aaron Brown is a digital editor at Road & Track, a Hearst property. He's also a member of the organizing committee for the new union and tells VICE, "Basically, it’s disappointing that management is still spreading misleading information about the unionization process. It looks like this hastily thrown-together Squarespace website is a response to our official NLRB election filing, which we decided to move forward with last week after not receiving any official response from management on voluntary recognition."
Like many of my colleagues here at Hearst, I love my job and am super proud to be here, but I also love the protections that I know a fairly negotiated contract could potentially get us. I’ve seen what unions are capable of firsthand as a bargaining rep for GMG’s second contract, and as a witness to what the Guild’s managed to get in the other media shops it’s organized over the past few years.
My coworkers have made an informed decision about this after hundreds of conversations and we’re ready to start bargaining in good faith to reach a great contract.
Hearst did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE.
This post has been updated with comment from a member of the Hearst Media Union's organizing committee.