From the beginning, Mike Elk was a curious choice for Politico. For all of its new-media velocity, the Beltway Bible is still very much a classic newsroom culture, where reporters and editors practice the old journalistic convention of not expressing opinions about the topics they cover. Elk, who was previously a labor reporter for the progressive mag In These Times and was hired to help launch Politico’s labor coverage, was different: a union man who made no bones about the fact that he wanted the newsroom to organize. As other media outlets — Salon, Gawker, The Guardian, and Vice — voted to unionize in recent months, Elk sent emails to colleagues trying to rally the newsroom around the cause. Last month, he went to a Bernie Sanders campaign event and asked the presidential candidate if he supported the organizing efforts at Politico. This was after someone leaked his internal emails to the conservative Washington Free Beacon, which speculated about Elk’s newsroom absences and the fact that only a handful of his stories ran over the course of the year he’d been at Politico. (Elk wrote a piece about his struggles with PTSD after the suicide of a source in a piece for the Huffington Post earlier this week.)
Now, as the Huffington Post and other outlets have reported, Elk appears to have been fired — his work email bounces back, and his bio page appears to have been deleted. When I caught up with him, Elk wouldn’t confirm that he was fired, alluding to a “process” he is going through with the company and the help of a union rep. I asked him about the effort to organize at Politico and what comes next.
So, what’s going on with you and Politico? Do you no longer work there?
Marty Kady, the editor of Politico Pro, called me while I was on vacation and started to have a phone conversation with me that appeared adversarial. I informed Marty that under federal labor law that I had Weingarten rights and the right to have my union rep present if I felt the conversation could result in discipline or termination. I’m on vacation — the union is handling all further stuff on this, as I am just trying to relax. As a PTSD survivor, I have the right to medical privacy, and I’m not going to comment on it at this time as we go through this process. I’m really glad to be a member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild to handle these kinds of stressful situations. I feel really strongly that the story really isn’t about me, the story is about why digital-media workers are trying to organize across the industry.
Do you think Politico will ever unionize? What’s your meter-reading of the newsroom?
Oh yeah, no doubt about it. Give it a year or two, and it will unionize. A few other places, like BuzzFeed or HuffPost, will have to go union first, but I imagine once that’s happening, reporters at Politico will get the job done. This is gonna be a multiyear effort, and many different people in the newsroom are gonna have to step up and take leadership positions.
When I announced the union drive, I really didn’t have much support. However, as the senior labor reporter on Politico’s labor desk, I thought it was my ethical duty, as someone who was supposed to lead younger labor reporters, to say that I wanted a union. Every day I ask workers to tell me how they feel about their jobs. So, who would I be as a labor reporter if I didn’t say how I felt about my desire to have a union at my own job? Growing up in a union family in Pittsburgh, I’ve been a union man all of my life, and I wasn’t going to lie about who I was just because I got a really high-paying job as a labor reporter.
Where do you think your efforts fell short?
I think a lot of people in the newsroom were very supportive. There’s a lot of people in there who’ve been in unionized newsrooms. There were a lot of people who were sympathetic, and a lot of people upset with their jobs who didn’t know anything about unions and wanted to unionize. The problem is that people looked around and said, “This Elk guy hasn’t gotten a byline in six months, is that gonna happen to me?” That had a chilling effect. People were wondering. So they were interested, but they’re scared.
Obviously, a fair number of people in the newsroom who were sympathetic to the union drive didn’t like the way I talked about the union, and I have learned some lessons from this. As well, a fair number of people expressed their dislike of the union drive by being quoted anonymously in the pages of various publications, which was a real shock to me. I never imagined I’d work in a newsroom where reporters talk shit on a fellow co-worker anonymously. That being said, I don’t hold any grudges with those people. I just wish that I knew who they were so that I could invite them out for beers and talk to them about unions.
Unfortunately, the antiunion forces in the newsroom have tried to make the union drive all about me when it’s not about me at all. I really think that Susan Glasser and Jim VandeHei should follow the lead of other digital-media leaders and encourage workers at their outlets to talk freely about the union drive. I think the attitude that Susan and Jim have taken regarding the union drive has had a real chilling effect that has prevented other people in the newsroom from speaking up.
You think the union efforts were why you didn’t write for six months?
You have to ask Tim Noah. I wrote over a dozen stories that weren’t published. You can talk to him about it. It was Tim’s call, not mine. I can’t answer for him, but I find it interesting that Tim Noah, being this supposedly pro-union guy, has not said a word about this. And it’s also interesting that Susan Glasser, coming from a UAW family, hasn’t said a word. The CEO of BuzzFeed gave a speech to employees [about unionization] — why can’t Jim VandeHei? Why is he hiding from the union? In eight months, why can’t he comment?
[Ed. note: I reached out to the editors Elk mentions for comment. His superiors at Politico won’t say anything on the record, but some of his colleagues have a different explanation for his troubles at work: They say he was always far more focused on forming a union than on doing his job, and they also question the idea that he was intimidated by editors in the newsroom.]
Why is it so important for online journalists to organize?
It’s simple: We are trusted with performing a task so vital to our democracy, shouldn’t we have a democracy in our own workplaces as well? I mean, who hasn’t had a boss they hated and wished that they had some method of pushing back other than through petty newsroom politics?
Tell me about the Louisville Statement. What is it, and what is going on there in October?
The Louisville Statement of Media Workers’ Rights calls for workers to have the right to self-determination over 12 key areas of their work, ranging from developing diversity policies to overtime policies to anti-age discrimination. Basically, we are calling on media workers to come to Louisville for a weekend of training, planning, and barbecuing, and to develop a nationwide alt-labor campaign to push the Louisville Statement on Media Workers’ Rights. For those who can’t afford to come, we can provide some assistance, so we encourage everyone interested in coming to sign up at mediaworkersunite.com.
What comes next for you, professionally?
Once when I was down in spring training covering the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team’s alternate union rep Jared Hughes told me that the key to keeping your cool as a pitcher was to remember that at the end of the day, you have to know who you are. I am a union man, and I don’t really worry too much about what’s next. Studs Terkel is my hero because he never made the story about himself, he always made it about workers. Again, the story really isn’t about me, it’s about what it means to be a part of the labor movement.
Update 5:00 p.m.: Politico sent the following statement:
"Mike Elk no longer works at POLITICO. As a long-standing company policy, we do not and will not comment on the specifics of personnel matters. We can say that Mike Elk’s recent departure has nothing to do with his union activities. POLITICO employees have been, and continue to be, free to engage in or refrain from union activities."
This article has been updated throughout.