“I Work at VICE Canada and I Need a Union”: Organizing Digital Media

Nicole Cohen and Greig de Peuter (forthcoming) “‘I Work at VICE Canada and I Need a Union’: Organizing Digital Media.” In Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage eds, Antiunionism. Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood.

Unions are trending in digital newsrooms. This chapter examines the campaign to unionize one workplace within an ongoing digital media organizing wave: VICE Canada, a subset of VICE Media, a privately held business whose youth-oriented properties span a range of news and culture websites, a magazine, an advertising agency, two TV channels and a record label. The union bid began in fall 2015 at the company’s Toronto headquarters, when VICE employees chose to organize with the Canadian Media Guild (CMG). Our account is based on in-depth interviews with inside organizing committee members, CMG staff organizers and VICE staff; a review of documents produced during the drive; and media coverage of the campaign. VICE Canada staff hoped that the union would raise and standardize pay, protect and expand racial and gender diversity and equity, and support editorial freedom. On May 1, 2017, almost a year after union certification, VICE’s CMG members ratified their first contract—94.7 percent voted in favour—with “major gains in salaries and benefits, stronger equity provisions and measures to protect editorial independence.”

Our interviews show that VICE staffers overall were open to unionization, not only to gain material benefits but also as a way to address professional concerns, such as journalistic integrity. Still, the VICE drive faced obstacles that would seem to make unionization unlikely, including a professional culture that views unions as ill-fit to the industry and individualizes work; a predominantly young workforce with no previous organizing experience; attempts by management to defuse the unionization effort; and employees whose past exposure to unions induced skepticism that unions protect young workers. Our chapter reviews these dimensions, showing that although they presented challenges, they did not undermine the drive. On the contrary, these obstacles manifest or were negotiated in such a way as to ultimately support the union drive: reinforcing the need to unionize, enabling an empowering process of self-organization, informing sector-tailored bargaining objectives and shaping union messaging.