Digital media writers dedicate their careers to exposing the many injustices of the world, all while ignoring the injustices right at their own desks. That ends now.
Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, a notorious douchebro (at least according to his public persona), took the opportunity to rehash his anti-union stance from 2015, back when Gawker writers unionized.
Portnoy's language may be jokey, but commenters took his threat to fire any employee who attempted to unionize seriously. The backlash was immediate, with many calling Portnoy's union-busting threats illegal and offering various services (such as pro bono legal help) to Barstool employees. Portnoy doubled down, threatening to fire any employee who even reached out to anyone offering help.
These threats drew the attention of the New York State Department of Labor.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got involved, condemning Portnoy's actions.
Portnoy relished this, repeatedly challenging AOC to debate him for some reason. Then Donald Trump's least impressive son joined the fray.
Portnoy continued tweeting threats ad nauseum and circle-jerking with his favorite public-facing writers. But while the drama might be amusing, it's important to recognize the core issue at-hand: Dave Portnoy is proving why digital media writers need to unionize.
Without unions, it's incredibly easy for digital media companies to take advantage of writers. The writing field is hyper-competitive in the sense that there are a limited number of jobs and a ton of people who think they can write (whether or not they actually can is another story). As a result, a lot of writers (especially younger ones) are willing to put up with poor treatment if it might put their foot in the door.
Digital media companies oftentimes recognize this and exploit it. For example, many are notorious for hiring writers full-time but calling their positions "internships" in order to avoid paying them the benefits that accompany standard employment. In fact, a lot of full-time digital media writers, despite working for profitable companies, go without proper healthcare coverage. Some of these companies don't even offer standard 401k plans.
It's ironic how many writers pursue the career due to their passion for exposing injustice, all while their own industry rakes them over the coals.
In the digital media space, companies often rely on their trendy, woke public-facing image, but that's not always a good indicator for how they value their employees. For instance, it took Buzzfeed News staff five months of protest and action before BuzzFeed officially recognized their union.
And while Barstool's public-facing writers said they actually get great benefits, that's not a particularly good reason not to unionize. In an industry that has been increasingly wracked by layoffs, even employees in seemingly great situations need protection. Otherwise, essential elements of their livelihoods, like healthcare, exist entirely at the whim of profit-driven owners with no incentive to offer a safety net should finances go south.
Dave Portnoy might actually be a wonderful boss behind closed doors, but if he actually cared about his writers (especially if he already gives them great benefits), why would he be so vocally against them having protection? After all, Portnoy isn't the sole owner or decision-maker at Barstool Sports, and even if he was, at the end of the day his interests lie with the company's profits. Nobody should ever trust their boss so implicitly that they're willing to give up a safety net for themselves and their families.
Unions exist to ensure that workers are protected in negotiations with their employers. Otherwise, there's no guarantee that they'll be given a seat at the table, and when workers aren't taken seriously, they're ripe for exploitation by corporations. The digital media industry is in the midst of a reckoning. Writers are finally done giving lip service to fight injustices in other industries while turning a blind eye to those of their own.