This post is the seventh in a series called “E-Lancer Writes,” exploring the working conditions, rights, and collective organizing strategies of freelance journalists, interns, and other low-wage or temporary digital media workers.

By Errol Salamon

The VICE Canada bargaining committee has been looking closely at equity issues as it prepares for upcoming meetings in August to negotiate a first collective agreement.

The majority of VICE Canada employees voted to join the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) in June.

“When VICE workers first came to the CMG, they expressed concerns about two main equity issues: a concern that women may be paid less than men and that the VICE workforce is ‘whiter’ than the Canadian population,” wrote CMG president Carmel Smyth in an email.

VICE Canada employees announced they were organizing a union in December 2015.

At the beginning of the organizing campaign, VICE workers considered collecting information on individuals’ pay rates.

“We wanted to create a Google form so people could anonymously put in their salaries and add their gender because we were concerned that there would be a huge gap in pay between genders, especially at our office,” said a VICE Canada employee who asked to remain anonymous.

“We didn’t end up getting around to doing that, but that is one thing that we would want to rectify because I know that there—100 percent—is a gap in pay based on gender.”

It’s unclear whether there’s actually a gap in pay based on gender at VICE, but Smyth said the union is investigating whether such a pay gap exists. Such a gap would conflict with the company’s Equal Opportunity Employer Statement.

According to the statement, “VICE provides equal employment opportunities to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, creed, colour, religion, gender, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, national origin, age, physical or mental disability, genetic predisposition or carrier status, military status, veteran status, and any other classification protected by law.”

VICE didn’t respond to a request for comment on this issue. But Smyth said a gender pay gap is something the union has seen at four other media companies in recent years.

“While it is no longer acceptable, our experience tells us sometimes it isn’t intentional, and has possibly happened through time, without anyone being aware of the extent of the problem,” wrote Smyth.

“We look forward to working with VICE to help bring life to its ‘equal opportunity’ employment policy. Often, increasing the salary minimums goes a long way to closing gender pay gaps.”

The VICE Canada bargaining committee met with management for the first time on August 11. The committee presented non-monetary proposals based on its five key bargaining objectives:

  1. “Pay us fairly for the work we do”;
  2. “Improve our work-life balance”;
  3. “Improve job security”;
  4. “Maintain a healthy workplace that respects each employee’s contribution to the company’s success”; and
  5. “Commit to editorial innovation, quality and independence.”

These objectives are the outcome of a confidential online survey the CMG asked VICE employees to complete.

“We wanted to ensure the survey captured the diverse set of issues raised by our members at VICE Canada regarding what they were hoping to improve in their workplace,” wrote Smyth. “VICE workers were directly involved in developing the survey questions.”

Freelancers and casual employees aren’t covered in the bargaining unit, but Smyth said the collective agreement could have still a positive effect on their working conditions.

“CMG members at VICE have already expressed an interest in improving relationships with freelancers and reducing the wait-time for freelancers to get paid,” she said.

VICE management hasn’t yet offered its own proposals or issued a formal response to the bargaining committee’s proposals. The next negotiating meeting is scheduled for August 25.

The VICE Canada unionization effort followed closely a wave of unionization at digital media firms in the United States that started in 2015. VICE Canada became the first big online media company in this country to unionize.

“At a time when precarious employment is spreading in media industries, and in the context of massive job loss in Canadian media over the past several years, it’s significant that a large, very profitable company like VICE Canada has seen editorial workers unionize,” wrote University of Toronto assistant professor and author of Writers’ Rights Nicole Cohen in an email.

“VICE has been hiring young media workers, and it’s an important statement that these young journalists see unionization as a viable means to push back against low pay and intense working conditions.”

The Canada Industrial Relations Board confirmed that VICE employees voted in favour of joining the CMG on June 2.

“About 120 digital workers at Vice Canada, who were convinced that CMG is the media union of choice for the next generation, have just voted at 68% to join CMG,” said Smyth at the union’s convention on June 4.

Ryan Archibald, VICE Canada president, supported the outcome of the vote.

“It goes without saying that I am enormously proud of what we have built here and support those employees who have voted to unionize and those who have not,” he said.

During the organizing campaign, VICE Canada workers received wide support, including from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

“We must strengthen the role of unions and the voices of working people on the job,” wrote Sanders on Twitter. “I urge VICE Canada workers to vote for a union voice.”

CMG members at the VICE Media branch work in editorial, production, post-production, marketing, design and administration in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

“The successful campaign by VICE Canada workers to form a union is a great example that other digital media workers are likely to follow,” wrote Smyth. “We know there is a ton of interest by media workers to improve working conditions in their workplaces and raise industry standards.”

However, there’s no guarantee that VICE Canada workers will set off a wave of unionization, like Gawker workers did in the US.

“The notion of a ‘wave of unionization’ is nice, but it’s important to remember that nothing is automatic, and collective organizing, let alone negotiating successful contracts, depends on workers and unions being willing to invest time and money in the hard work of organizing,” said Cohen.

“I do hope this victory will inspire other digital journalists to think that collective organizing is possible.”

Errol Salamon is a freelance writer and the work and labour editor of J-Source. He’s also co-editor and contributor to the forthcoming book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press). Follow him on Twitter @errolouvrier.

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