Labor unions have been a feature on the world’s media landscape for close to two centuries. Depending on the era and the locale, they have certified the skills of content providers and production workers, bargained collectively for wages and benefits, trained and disciplined members of the craft, and fought with employers and the state over freedom of expression, workplace health and safety, protection of intellectual property, and access to information. In general, they have attracted relatively little scholarly attention. Nonetheless, they have had a significant impact on media institutions and on the societies in which they operate.
Calculating the number of unionized media workers around the world is virtually impossible. In part, that is because the definition of what constitutes the media continues to evolve. Meanwhile, many unions have transformed themselves into sector-wide communications unions that include but are not limited to media workers. Finally, statistical agencies define and tally media work in different ways. Globally, an International Labour Organization (ILO) survey of 92 countries estimated that union density – the proportion of workers who were organized into trade unions – stood at just under 20 percent, though this varied widely from country to country (International Labour Organization 1997). In the media, union density also varies tremendously. In many areas of Europe and North America, it is higher than among other private-sector industrial workers. It also tends to be higher at national public broadcasters than at private broadcasting networks and stations. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a confederation of national journalists’ unions and professional associations in more than 100 countries, estimated that 1.5 million people were working as journalists in 2006. IFJ members accounted for 500,000 of them. The bulk of IFJ membership was in Europe, where the union represented more than 230,000 members.
Unionized media labor includes technical and production workers as well as journalists, performers, and other content providers. The activities of media unions have an impact well beyond their immediate membership. Wages and working conditions negotiated in unionized newspapers, for example, tend to set the pattern for nonunion shops. Similarly, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) requires producers working outside the United States to be signatories to its contracts if they wish to use SAG members – a policy that has ripple effects among performers’ unions in those countries. National media workers’ unions are active members of national labor federations and many are active in international federations as well, including the International Federation of Musicians, the International Federation of Actors, the IFJ, and the Union Network International (UNI). The varied activities of media unions ensure that their influence in the workplace and in the policy realm is often far greater than union density would suggest.
Development Of Media Unions
Trade unionism in the media originated with printers’ organizations, which began to appear in Europe and North America in the eighteenth century. Printers were the earliest knowledge workers, manufacturing ideas and debate rather than simply material goods. They were highly skilled and literate at a time when most workers were not. Printers’ unions, originally conceived as mutual support organizations, transformed themselves over the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries into locally based unions, and then into national unions. For much of the nineteenth century, these were the only national media workers’ unions in most countries. That changed with the massive expansion of the periodical press in the second half of the nineteenth century. New unions formed, often by way of separation from the original printers’ unions, to represent the various crafts in publishing (bookbinders, press operators, stereotypers, and so on).
By the middle of the twentieth century, as many as eight or nine unions might represent various groups of production workers in the same newspaper. In general, the printers’ unions were the strongest.
Some attempts to organize newspaper reporters occurred in the nineteenth century, but in most areas stable journalists’ unions were a feature of the twentieth century. Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) was founded in 1907, for example, while the American Newspaper Guild appeared in the 1930s. The International Federation of Journalists was founded in 1926 and relaunched in 1952 with a mandate of promoting press freedom, professional development, and recognition of trade unionism.
The combination of professionalism and trade unionism has been a feature of journalists’ unions in many countries, where the unions fulfill a professional certification function by issuing national press cards, setting industry-wide codes of ethics, and contributing actively to the education of journalists. Freelances account for about one-quarter of the members of European journalists’ unions and about one-half of those in Central and South America. In North America, by contrast, the unions operate mainly as collective bargaining agents for permanent employees. In authoritarian countries, journalists’ unions have also served as a means to control the dissemination of information, and the journalists themselves. Nonetheless, almost all journalists’ unions, historically and in the present time, see part of their mandate as devoting attention to professional issues like freedom of expression, copyright, and training.
Unions representing film and broadcast workers developed in parallel with those technologies and industries, appearing in the 1920s, 1930s, and beyond. These included unions of technicians as well as unions representing performers and broadcast journalists. Broadcast unions often developed separately from print journalists’ unions. In the United States, broadcast journalists were organized as part of a broader union of radio performers. Film performers, meanwhile, organized their own union. In many countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, union amalgamations or consolidations have resulted in unions representing both print and broadcast journalists.
In the 1960s, digital technology began to erode traditional union jurisdictions in all areas of the media. Very soon, it was apparent that technology would hollow out the production process, leading to significant job reductions among technical and production workers and threatening the existence of several unions. The unions responded in a number of ways, including confrontations with employers and other unions over jurisdiction, mergers with other trade unions, and attempts to trade lifetime job guarantees for going along with employers’ plans for technological change. Lengthy newspaper strikes over new technology occurred in a number of countries in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Perhaps the definitive industrial dispute of the era began in 1986 when Rupert Murdoch secretly moved his London newspaper business to a fortress-like plant in Wapping, precipitating a long, bitter, and ultimately unsuccessful printers’ strike. The development of smaller, lighter video cameras and nonlinear editing systems led to similar reductions among broadcast production workers. Because broadcast technicians’ unions were not, in general, as entrenched as printers’ unions, technological change in broadcasting tended to result in fewer high-profile strikes than in newspapers.
Concentration of media ownership, an increasingly significant feature of media systems in many parts of the world, further challenged media unions in the 1990s. Many corporations began pursuing strategies of convergence, using digital technology to integrate their various media holdings. Some unions responded with their own strategy of convergence, forming larger and broader unions that represent a range of communication workers. The 700,000-member Communications Workers of America is perhaps the foremost model of this kind of union. It began as a telephone workers’ union but now includes newspaper editorial and production workers, broadcast journalists and technicians, telephone and telecommunications workers, and workers in the difficult-to-organize high-tech industries. In part, this reconfiguration is a defensive move, but it also represents an attempt by media workers’ unions to take advantage of synergies brought about by growing convergence in their work. Because they represent workers who are increasingly involved in producing for a converging electronic information services or knowledge arena, these unions see improved opportunities for organizing and for bargaining. The ILO noted in 2004 that mergers among unions at the national level were common in the media, cultural, and graphics sector.
Issues And Trends
Structural changes in the media that gained momentum in the last quarter of the twentieth century continue to challenge unions in the twenty-first century. These include concentration of media ownership, which has an impact not just within national borders but also beyond them. Employers have accelerated the pace of shifting work from higherpaid areas to lower-cost locales, through a practice known as outsourcing. At the same time, many media employers have sought to replace permanent employees in their core holdings with a contingent workforce of freelance or contract workers, and to create a nonunion workforce in their new media holdings.
The unions have responded with a range of activities designed to maintain or perhaps even increase labor power. These include inter-union cooperation, the creation of new federations of unions, and attempts to extend organizing to new locales and to new types of workers. The Hollywood-based entertainment unions, for example, have worked in coalition to combat the phenomenon they call “runaway production,” or filming stories intended for a domestic audience in lower-cost international locales. Much of their activity has focused on lobbying US federal and state governments for film subsidies. Significantly, however, they worked with film unions within those “runaway” locales to improve wages and working conditions.
While informal coalitions are common, there have been developments at the international and national federation level as well. In 2006, the Union Network International – created in 2000 by a merger among the Media and Entertainment International, the International Graphical Federation, the Communications International, and the white-collar and services federation FIET – represented 15.5 million members in 900 unions from more than 140 countries. Five of its twelve sectors covered workers in the converging media, communications, and information businesses, which together are becoming increasingly significant in the global economy. In 2005 North America’s leading labor federation, the AFL-CIO, set up an industry coordinating committee covering 10 unions in the arts, entertainment, media, and telecommunications. The committee’s goal is to build more power for workers in these industries in the face of rapid media consolidation and massive technological shifts.
Media unions continue to work to assert their jurisdiction over the array of new media products and services that are characteristic of an information economy. They are also stepping up efforts to organize new groups of workers in the information industries. The twenty-first century has also seen a rise in social movement unionism among the knowledge worker occupations, particularly through the formation of worker associations. The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), originally created to organize temporary workers at Microsoft, has emerged as the leading voice in the US opposing outsourcing of information technology jobs to the developing world. Meanwhile, a French film workers strike in 2003 helped launch a movement that drew attention to issues surrounding intermittent or precarious labor not just in the media but in other sectors of the economy too.
Labor convergence and the rise of worker movements can be seen as encouraging developments for media unions. Nonetheless, these are perilous times for the unions as the very definition of media work comes increasingly into question. For example, the rise of so-called citizen journalism has forced journalists’ unions to ask questions about what journalism is, and what the unions’ role should be in certifying credentials or negotiating pay rates. Production and content workers’ unions, meanwhile, struggle with an ever-expanding array of digital products. At the same time, they continue to grapple with important traditional questions, such as how to promote freedom of expression, safety in the workplace (including, for journalists, in war zones), and independent trade unions.
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