“Credible Threat”: The Reason Behind the Anti-Union Backlash Against Journalists at DNAinfo and Gothamist
A Q&A with Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Earlier this month, a week before New York City news websites DNAinfo and Gothamist were shut down, the journalists of both newsrooms had voted to unionize with the Writers Guild of America, East. Joe Ricketts, the sites’ owner, was responsible for the shutdown: news of the journalists’ unionizing efforts had reached him, and thus he put a stop to them. His decision put 115 staffers out of work and will leave New Yorkers without the local-news reporting they’d come to depend on. His decision also reflects one of the many misconceptions about unions covered in labor activist Bill Fletcher, Jr.’s book “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths about Unions. We caught up with Fletcher to give us context about the shutdown and what this means for our politically fraught times.
Christian Coleman: What was your initial reaction when you heard the news of Joe Ricketts pulling the plug on his newsrooms’ unionization efforts?
Bill Fletcher, Jr.: I was not at all surprised. Employers see little to lose by threatening workers and breaking the law. The penalties are minimal. They can simply assert that there was a business reason for the closing and that it was mere coincidence that the closing took place after the union referendum. Employers regularly threaten such closures. It is called the “credible threat.”
CC: Why would Ricketts write on his blog that “unions promote a corrosive us-versus-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed”? Where does this idea come from?
BF: The idea comes from the notion that the union is allegedly a third party separate from the workers. If you fail to remember that the union is the organization of the workers, then you can think about the union as the equivalent of a non-profit advocacy group. The aim of the employer class is to always make the union a “third party” and claim that the workers are better off appealing to the good-will of the employer. What this does is takes power out of the equation and leaves the situation to one of the employer—with its power—standing over the individual worker—who has no power.
CC: Ricketts’s statement appears to stem from the myth that unions make unreasonable demands that result in a lot of strikes. You cover this myth in your book. Why would he view unionizing as unreasonable?
BF: He views unionizing as unreasonable because it stands in the way of his absolute, totalitarian domination of the workplace. The union is the only voice that workers can possess. The union makes demands based on the needs and desires of their members. The employer is expected to negotiate in good faith. There is no assumption that the negotiations will necessarily result in an agreement but that they will be taken seriously. Most of the employer class wants nothing that results in the diminishing of their absolute power over the workplace, regardless of the consequences.
CC: Why is this myth still pervasive today?
BF: As practiced by the Nazi Party in the 1930s, a myth repeated over and again can be believed, especially when it is not challenged. The employer class repeats the myth in television shows, films, on the radio, etc. Though it is challenged at times, usually by organizations that are much weaker than those serving the employer class.
CC: Later on in his blog, Ricketts writes that “the essential esprit de corps that every successful company needs can’t exist when employees and ownership see themselves as being on opposite ends of a seesaw. Everyone at a company—owners and employees alike—need to be sitting on same end of the seesaw because the world is sitting at the other end.” Don’t employers and workers have different interests?
BF: Employers and workers do not have the same interests. Their interests diverge. If Ricketts means what he says, is he prepared to share ownership with the workers? If we are all one big family, will he sit down with the workers and share the decision-making? Highly unlikely. This is what demonstrates the sophistry in their arguments.
CC: What does Ricketts’s opposition to unions mean for us in our politically fraught times and what can we learn from it?
BF: This opposition is not at all surprising. Employers such as Ricketts have to be challenged not only by their existing workforce but also by allies in the larger community. The problem is that employers carry out these atrocious actions largely in silence and isolation. The covers need to be ripped away for all to see. There need to be real penalties for bad behavior. This might mean protests, boycotts, or other expressions of nonviolent opposition to the efforts to suppress the worker’s right to self-organization and collective bargaining.
About Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, and activist. His book from Beacon Press, “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And Twenty Other Myths about Unions, addresses many of the misconceptions about unions and unionism. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and at www.billfletcherjr.com.