The dam has finally broken for nonprofit news outlet unionization

Nonprofit outlets have been slow to unionize, despite their widely-held “savior” status within journalism.
A photo of workers at a protest. One holds up a sign that says "If you're not angry, you're not paying attention"

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Labor organizing in nonprofit journalism turned a corner this week, with two wins for workers: The ProPublica Guild, a union of workers at the largest nonprofit news outlet in the country, won voluntary recognition from management. And workers with CalMatters, a nonprofit covering California politics and policy, went public with their intention to seek union recognition after a wildly successful card drive.

These announcements come on the heels of major union actions at other nonprofit outlets in recent years, including the recognition of a first-ever collective bargaining agreement at the Center for Public Integrity, ratification of union contracts at Grist and Chalkbeat, and voluntary recognition of unions at Reveal-CIR, Cityside, and The American Independent, among others.

It might be easy to assume the delay in these top nonprofit outlets’ unionization was due to a lack of interest from staff. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

In case after case, unionizing outlets were supported by the vast majority of their bargaining unit workers — 90%, in the case of ProPublica and 92% at CalMatters. 

While the number of unionized American newsrooms has grown significantly in the past decade, nonprofit outlets have been slow to join the trend, despite their widely-heldsavior” status within journalism. 

That contradiction is apparent not just within nonprofit news organizations but throughout the nonprofit space — bosses in so-called “mission-based” organizations have often pushed back against workers’ demands for better wages, citing tight budgets and optimistic visions of workplace culture.

“[S]ervices once provided by a workplace segment enjoying the highest unionization rates in the country — more than 50 percent of public sector employees are unionized — are in many cases now provided by a sector with one of the lowest rates of unionization — less than 6 percent of nonprofit employees are unionized,” journalist Corey Hill wrote in the East Bay Express in 2013.

“[N]onprofit management sometimes takes advantage of employees’ desire to do good, and guilt-trips them into working long hours for low pay.”

The delay in unionization might better be attributed to bosses’ (false) attestation that unions are only required in cases of egregious mismanagement. Indeed, Richard Tofel, the former president and founding general manager of ProPublica, argued as much earlier this year, writing on Substack that unions are “essential vehicles for getting a fair share of the aggregate profits for the employee group as a whole” at “for-profit companies that actually make substantial profits.” 

But “[w]hen management genuinely cares for the workforce, unions are less necessary,” he argued. “The more you both attend to your colleagues, and appear to do so, the less union pressure you are likely to face,” he concluded.

Those of us who’ve worked in newsrooms, unionized or not, know that workers’ collective action is beneficial in good times and bad. Union activism can, for example, provide workers across departments the opportunity to eschew their cubicles or Zoom screens and come together, strengthening camaraderie and their own sense of worth. 

We also know the economic outlook for the industry has been trending downwards for some time — all the more reason unions are essential, if for no other reason than to help negotiate amid layoffs or speak out in situations they see unjustly affecting workers.

With the ProPublica Guild’s recognition and CalMatters heading in that direction, seven of the Institute for Nonprofit News’ 10 largest member newsrooms are now unionized. Here’s hoping the other three will join them soon. 

This piece originally came from The Front Page, our twice-monthly newsletter on that examines systems of power and inequity in journalism. Subscribe here.

Jacob Gardenswartz, The Objective’s democracy correspondent, is a reporter based in Washington, D.C. who covers the federal government’s impact on Americans throughout the country.

Editing by Janelle Salanga. Copy edits by Curtis Yee and Jen Ramos Eisen.

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