Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times
It might come as surprise to many, but as a labor journalist I feel that both Jonathan Tasini & Arianna Huffington are wrong in their current squabble over labor relations that has broken out as a result of Tasini’s lawsuit for $115 million against the Huffington Post.
Over the last few months, many people have approached me about suing the Huffington Post. Nobody has a stronger legal claim than me since I was “fired” or dismissed as an unpaid blogger after I used press credentials obtained citing myself as a blogger for the Huffington Post to help 200 construction workers invade a conference of mortgage bankers to protest a bailout. (Only in 2011 can you be “fired” from a “job” that doesn’t pay you anything.)
While the ethics of the act are debatable, being dismissed or “fired” from the Huffington Post puts me in a unique legal position to claim an employee like relationship with the Huffington Post. My dismissal for “unprofessional behavior” shows there were standards and regimentation required for blogging for the Huffington Post that is more employee-like than a volunteer-type position. If I could claim my relationship with the Huffington Post was more employee-like than volunteer-like, some labor lawyers argue I might (key word might) be able to persuade a judge that I was entitled to back wages from the Huffington Post for my free work.
At the end of the day though, I felt it was disingenuous to sue the Huffington Post for back wages. Writing for the Huffington Post unpaid actually made me a lot of money as outside organizations would pay for me to write on the Huffington Post due to its high traffic. Sometimes I even got paid reprint fees by outside publications for pieces that I had originally published on the Huffington Post.
Of the 105 piece I had written for the Huffington post, only about five or six pieces I wrote for the Huffington Post were unpaid. These pieces included a piece celebrating the World Series Victory of the San Francisco Giants, a piece about my dog Murphy, and an obituary I wrote when my grandfather died. These were hardly pieces that outside publications would have agreed to pay me for in the first place since they were quick thoughts on random subjects. However I was grateful at the time to have a forum to get out these quick thoughts, especially for the obituary I wrote about my grandfather.
It would have been very disingenuous for me to sue the Huffington Post for the work I did for them because I got paid for basically all of my work for the Huffington Post, although I do feel that the Department of Labor should issue some type of employee classification on what are the rights of workers who writes for one publication but is paid by an outside source of funding. This is a growing trend of journalist getting paid by an outside source like a foundation. The Department of Labor should determine what type of employees these workers are.
I also choose not to participate in the lawsuit because I believed the path of the individuals involved was not one aimed at improving labor standards, but to merely enrich those suing the Huffington Post, particularly the two lawyers involved. The lawyers, Jeff Kurzon and Jesse Strauss, had called and emailed me on several occasions trying to get me involved in the lawsuit. I told them that I found their legal rationale quite bizarre and felt that it undercut their cases severely. I informed them that if they were going to sue the proper channel would be to merely file back wages claims through the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. This would enable the Department of Labor could set legal precedent on the employment classifications of people that work for free in for profit industries. They told me that they weren’t interested in filing merely for back wages with the Department of Labor since this would not be profitable enough to justify them suing the Huffington Post.
Likewise, I was shocked by their lack of knowledge of elementary labor law of the lawyers involved in the suit. Strauss and Kurzon are corporate lawyers with very little if any association to the labor movement who seemed like they were out to make a quick buck. As one labor lawyer told me “These guys sound like class action ambulance chasers”.
While Tasini portrays himself as a representative of the labor movement, it should also be noted that he is not. Indeed, Tasini was forced out of the National Writers Union under a cloud of controversy for his anti-democratic ways of running it. He does not have the support of either of the two major union’s representing journalists & writers -- the Newspaper Guild & the National Writers Unions -- nor does he have the support of the AFL-CIO. Tasini represents merely his own personal views and has not been able to find anyone to join in his class action lawsuit.
But while I do not agree with Tasini’s response to the matter, I do not feel that Arianna Huffington’s response to the matter is any more rational than Tasini’s. To merely dismiss the concerns of people that blog for the Huffington Post for free as absurd is not the behavior of a socially responsible CEO. Many young writers feel pressured to write for free without the type of outside financial support I enjoyed in order to make a name for them and eventually get a career. Sure nobody forces you to blog for the Huffington Post, but many young writers feel forced to do it out of necessity in order to gain exposure.
Volunteering to blog for a for profit corporation like the Huffington Post is like General Motors coming to a young, unskilled worker and saying “Hey even though we are making big profits, we won’t pay you, but you can come down and volunteer a few days a week on our assembly line in order to gain exposure.” Well if you are desperate for work and have no other options but to work for free in the hopes that you might get paid work -- you do it. If General Motors was offering workers opportunities to "volunteer" on their assembly lines, Arianna Huffington would be citing such volunteer opportunities as an example of “Third World America”. She would be calling on General Motors to create real opportunities and training and mentorship programs for young under-skilled workers.
The Newspaper Guild of America and the National Writers Union have both proposed meeting with Arianna Huffington to discuss just this matter -- finding ways to ensure that blogging for free at the Huffington Post does not become an endless treadmill of unpaid blogging that never leads to a paid job. The Newspaper Guild of America and the National Writers Union simply want to have a discussion about how to create good paying jobs for journalists. They want to talk about a variety of unique approaches and see what ideas Arianna Huffington has to say about how to ensure blogging for free actually leads to good jobs and just not more unpaid work as journalism jobs disappear at a fast rate.
So far Arianna Huffington has refused to even meet with the union leaders to discuss improving working conditions for journalists across the industry. As a result of Arianna’s refusal to even sit down for even an hour with union leaders to hear their opinions, both unions have called for boycott of bloggers writing on the Huffington Post. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other labor leaders have refused to blog at the Huffington Post until Huffington sits down and talks with the union.
Arianna Huffington refusal to sit down and talk with the unions reminds me of another public figure who refused to sit down and talk with workers – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
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