News & Politics

Group Calls for Rights for Journalists in Digital Newsrooms

Politico reporter Mike Elk is among the organizers of a planned conference on journo rights.

Elk with his dog, Kipp. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Politico labor reporter Mike Elk has been trying to organize his newsroom since early this year. On Thursday he emailed around something else he and others have been working on–a statement about the rights of people who work in newsrooms, with a particular focus on digital newsrooms.

Among the rights they call for: overtime protections, less restrictive social media policies when journalists are off the clock, and protections against age discrimination. Journalists at Vice, Gawker, and Salon have all recently voted to organize.

READ ALSO: Politico Has a “Culture of Fear,” Could Have Union Election Soon, Reporter Says

The statement will be unveiled formally this October at a convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Reached by phone, Elk says he and others involved in the conference published the statement this week to mark the appearance of a website called Media Workers Unite.

In the email, Elk also shares some personal news: his dad, Gene Elk, will be elected as the director of organization for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. Here’s the whole long email:

In addition to the announcing the launch of and the release of Louisville Statement of Media Workers’ Rights, I have some very exciting labor news to report: Sources within UE confirm to POLITICO that my father Gene Elk, who started off his career in UE as a worker at a box factory in Cambridge, Massachusetts , is going to be elected as next the Director of Organization of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, a union in which three generations of my family have worked.

Sources confirm that Elk intends to run on a platform of “Organizing the Unorganized”.

Growing up the son of a single father working as union organizer, I was lucky to spend my summers out on the road with my dad in West Virginia listening to Richie Havens and hearing my dad tell stories of his anti-war days and tough labor fights. I have had rough times these past few years in my struggle with PTSD and my father’s stories of how UE members have held up under tough, almost impossible odds has been a guiding light out that has helped me see my way of the emotional chaos of PTSD.

When I am having rough time, I always think of the story my dad would always tell me about my Great Uncle Herb Nichol. My Uncle Herb had been a member of the Communist Party and volunteered for the infantry during World War Two serving as a platoon sergeant on Okinawa, Leyte, and the Philippines. After the war he became been a union organizer for UE, where he meet my Great Aunt Lucy Nichol, a pioneering female labor organizer, who showed that women could get the job done too by winning an impressive streak of victories in General Electric during World War Two. (She also a very early supporter of Bernie in Vermont and predicted to me last winter that Bernie could win again).

Senator Sander’s ascension in the Democratic Primary has brought forward a much needed conversation about the lingering effects that McCarthyism still has in our society. A conversation about McCarthyism that reporters newsrooms all across America are having as they find themselves both amazed by Bernie’s success and the sudden rate at which the digital media industry is unionizing. As a veteran labor reporter and trade unionist, I am proud that we are having this conversation as my family suffered greatly under McCarthyism.

In 1947, President Truman legally decreed that every union leader in the country had to sign a loyalty oath. The UE and 12 others unions refused to sign the loyalty oaths and refused to purge out their communists members, many of whom were World War Two veterans like my Uncle Herb. The 13 unions were purged out of the CIO at the bequest of legendary UAW leader Walter Reuther so that the CIO could cut a deal to merge with the more conservative unions in the AFL, many of whom still legally barred people of color, women, and gays from joining their ranks and wouldn’t even imagine sitting in the same room as environmentalists

Unlike other unions, who received tens of millions of dollars in subsidies annually from the State Department and CIA for spying on foreign labor movements aboard, the UE refused to rat out its members. Instead, they argued that they were a member-run union and they didn’t care if a member was black, gay, communist, or a woman. As long as they were a union member, the UE would stick up for them.

Instead of focusing on organizing the South, the AFL-CIO used the tactics of redbaiting, racism, and chauvinism to harass and raid the 13 smaller unions. AFL-CIO organizers actively cooperated with the FBI, McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities (HUAC), and even major corporations to steal members from these more democratic unions. General Electric even set up a company union called the IUE in order to raid UE. As a result of the combined power of the state, mass media, and big business, only two of the 13 unions survived – the UE and the Longshoremen (ILWU).

In 1957, my Great Uncle Herb Nichol, who had left union organizing to become a Math teacher at Boy’s Latin in Baltimore, was forced to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. My Uncle Herb refused to name names.

He was promptly fired from his job as a math teacher at Boy’s Latin. His testimony is a document of family pride. I find it only fitting that my father will be elected Director of Organization next Wednesday in Baltimore, the Southern city were my Great Uncle Herb and Aunt Lucy were both blacklisted

I don’t think I wouldn’t have known how to survive PTSD if I didn’t know the story of how my family survived the blacklist.

After being fired from his job, my Uncle Herb and Aunt Lucy’s neighbors held a meeting to figure out how they could kick the commies him off their block.

However, a Republican Maryland State Trooper, who was my Uncle Herb’s next door neighbor, showed up to the meeting. He stood up with the meeting “I don’t agree with Herb on anything politically, but Herb’s my next door neighbor, a damn good guy, and a family man. If anybody gives Herb problems, they gotta deal with me first. This is America and this is not how we do things”.

These last few years, I have gotten so much help in my struggle with PTSD from so many once strangers that I cry when I think about it. It’s really proven to me that when you got a friend in labor, you got a friend everywhere. When you are in the labor movement, no matter how scary this world can get, you never walk alone. There is always someone there with you, who shares your pain, says “don’t worry buddy, we are gonna team up and do something about this. Don’t worry buddy, we’re in this together”.

PTSD is a daily struggle for me, but every day when you are in the labor movement is struggle. The most beautiful things in life are always a struggle to create.

I initially got to know Jennifer Sky, Tim Shorrock, and JP Wright, co-authors of the Louisville Statement, through our mutual struggles as a labor activists dealing with PTSD. We know that PTSD is caused in part by fatigue and overwork. As a workplace safety reporter, I see overtime as hazard that science tells us leads to mental health collapses like that I experienced that has been widely ridiculed by many. Despite the naysayers, we must put a stop to forced overtime in the media industry as it is literally killing media workers like my friend Michael Hastings and causing serious mental health issues for so many others.

Earlier this summer, I was very much honored to be featured in the White House’s press release on how the overtime rule would help media workers including the scores of young media workers at POLITICO that make less than 50K. The average journalist makes only $35,000 a year (just barely $15 an hour) and we are creating the National Media Workers Center to help implement these President Obama’s new wonderful overtime rules for journalists. I was very proud to have worked for the President as a field organizer in my native Western Pennsylvania. Now, once again, I am proud to be working with President Obama and the White House to make sure that overtime rules are fairly implemented to media workers.

We gather in Louisville to reaffirm the right of media workers to have self-determination over 12 key areas of their work and we are asking people to sign the Call to Action for the Louisville Statement on Media Workers Rights. A lot of glass ceiling that were set in the 1950s are being broken today in newsroom by women such like POLITICO Editor Susan Glasser, we are saying that it’s time that we break the glass ceiling of McCarthyism that has kept so many trade unionists out of newsroom particularly here in the South in Washington, D.C.

For my father Gene Elk, for my Aunt Lucy & Uncle Herb, for my grandparents George and Hedda Elk, who lied to the neighbors about meeting in the Communist Party, I am proud to be an American. I am proud to sign the Call to Action for the Louisville Statement on Media Workers Right. The days of McCarthyism are over in the newsroom – everyone deserves a voice!

We want everyone to be able to tell their story and have a say in how our work as media workers is organized. So come to Louisville this summer and be a signer of the Louisville Statement of Media Workers’ Right and help us organize a campaign to give everyone a voice in the media industry.

Will you join us brothers and sister in signing it the Call to Action to the Louisville Statement?

Call to Action:

The Louisville Statement of Media Workers’ Rights

October 8th -11th, 2015

Carl Braden Memorial Center

Louisville, Kentucky

Over the last decade, even as digital journalism has greatly expanded, over 12,000 jobs have disappeared from the media industry. Those of us, who work in today’s post-print world of digital media face an entirely new and uncertain economic situation that injects entirely new forms of stress and concerns into our lives. Our response is the following Louisville Statement on the Rights of Media Workers. We call on media workers to join us in refining it and putting it into practice.

As media workers, we are entrusted to perform a function vital to democracy, yet we have such limited democracy in our own workplaces.

While incredible progress is being made on gay rights, women’s rights, transgender rights, racial justice, disability rights, and the right to unionize, full workplace rights in these areas have not been extended to the very workers, who give voice to these civil rights struggles.

We call on media workers to join us this October 8th – 11th in Louisville in developing a Nationwide Center for Media Workers. Together with regional media workers from all major cities, we will create a non-traditional labor committee, develop our own industry-wide campaigns to promote the right to self-determination and workplace democracy over 12 key areas of media workers’ rights.

We will sign the Louisville Statement on the Rights of Media Workers at The Carl Braden Memorial Center in Louisville. We have chosen this site because it is an important part of the hidden history of media workers. Carl and his wife Anne Braden were white, Southern, trade unionists who fought for racial justice.

In 1954, during the height of McCarthyism, they were fired as reporters at the Louisville Courier-Journal and later charged with sedition by the the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Their “crime” was helping a black family buy a house. We will gather at the Carl Braden Memorial Center to recognize them and the many other reporters before us who fought for our civil rights.

On October 8th – 11th, we are calling on all media workers to come to Louisville, talk, eat, have fun, and develop their own campaigns around these 12 key workplace issues:

  • Overtime Protections President Obama’s recent executive order proposal would raise the overtime salary threshold for media workers to $50,440 a year, after which employees are required to be paid overtime for hours worked above the limit of 40 hours a week. This stands to raise the wages of thousands of media workers, who on average make $35,000 a year. All media workers, union or non-union, should be allowed to give feedback on the implementation of overtime procedures to make sure that media workers are not forced to work overtime and paid for when they do.
  • Union Elections without Interference from Management The decision of whether or not employees want to form a union should be left up to employees. All employers should pledge in writing not to fire, demote, or pass over employees, who choose to form a union.
  • Freelancer Rights Media employers should take steps to avoid misclassifying certain workers as independent contractors. We call on freelance writers to organize and push the industry to develop a uniform set of standards applicable to freelancers across the industry.Employers should recognize a uniform code of freelancers’ rights, developed by workers’ centers, unions, and freelancers. These rights should apply not to just freelance worker employed by American media companies in the U.S., but to foreign correspondents employed overseas, including protections for stringers, freelancers, and indigenous support staff, when employed by American media companies overseas.
  • Ethical Many journalists fear raising ethical concerns with editors about their workplace or publication because they don’t want to get fired. We need to have clear workplace policies allowing workers to express ethical concerns without fear of retaliation. When the concerns revolve around managers or owners, journalists should have whistleblower rights that protect them and their confidentiality.
  • Intern Rights Recent labor law advances have certified the right of certain term-bound interns to have their own unions. All interns deserve the right to form a union and advocate for their right to be paid.
  • Gender Identity Newsrooms are increasingly led by women, but at many workplaces the women at the bottom still lack a voice. Every worker has the right to have a say in developing company policy in order to fairly incorporate all in the newsroom.
  • Racial and Ethnic Diversity According to the 2015 annual census by the American Society of News Editors and the Center for Advanced Social Research, a mere 12.76% of people employed in newsrooms identify as racial or ethnic minorities. Many media outlets lack clear diversity plans developed in conjunction with media workers of color. People of color deserve the right to determine how their newsroom will recruit other people of color and fully incorporated into the newsroom.
  • Sexual Orientation With the recent court ruling making gay marriage legal, we believe that people of all sexual orientations, being equal, should be allowed to have a voice in the development of diversity policies in the newsroom.
  • Disability Rights We call on all newsrooms to develop policies that allow workers to speak up about their disabilities without intimidation. All employers should have developmental and physical disability safeguards in place to deal with any trauma that employees face in the field or in the workplace.
  • Age Discrimination Protection Many veteran journalists, who have lost their jobs as print media outlets downsized and turmoil shook the digital economy have been unable to get jobs elsewhere in media. Every workplace should have a clear policy eliminating age discrimination, developed in conjunction with older employees. As journalism changes, older media workers should not be discriminated against for simply being veteran journalists.
  • Technological Retraining The internet and new technologies are constantly changing the mediums and the styles in which reporters are asked to produce the news. As technology constantly redefines how we produce the news, reporters deserve the right to be trained in new technology and the right to determine how that training takes place.
  • Social Media Reporters are expected to maintain a large social media following that goes with them from employer to employer. However, employers often try to regulate what employees say on social media during the hours the employees are not working. Whether they are union or non-union, media workers should be allowed to express themselves however they want in their hours when they are not at work.

Jennifer Sky, Journalist.Advisory Board member of The Model Alliance. SAG-AFTRA.

Norwood Orrick, Verizon Telephone Worker. IBEW Local 824.

Tim Shorrock. Journalist & trade unionist, Author – Spies for Hire, Blogger – The

Larry Williams. Managing Partner,

Mike Elk. Labor Reporter, POLITICO. Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild

J.P. Wright. Folk Labor Reporter. Co-Chair Railroad Workers United. Kentucky IWW

Bruce Jett. former union chair, New York Daily News. Organizer, Washington Baltimore Newspaper Guild

Brendan Fischer. Lawyer & Writer. UAW Local 2320

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.