When the editorial staff of Hearst Magazines decided to form a union with the Writers Guild of America, East, they expected some resistance from their powerful employer. But Hearst made it clear, early, that it would go to particularly aggressive lengths to try to prevent a union. In meetings, company leaders and attorneys told workers spanning a wide range of job descriptions that they were all supervisors, and would break the law if they signed a union card. “They told me, verbatim, that if I didn’t trust them, I didn’t have to work there,” one employee told Intelligencer last November. In December, the WGAE filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company.
On Friday, Hearst’s anti-union campaign received a major blow. The National Labor Relations Board ruled against each objection it raised to the bargaining unit proposed by the WGAE and ordered a union election. It’s a total loss for Hearst, made doubly resonant by the fact that conservatives currently control the NLRB — the company couldn’t have designed a version of the NLRB more likely to rule in its favor, and it still lost.
Hearst had advanced three major arguments against the WGAE’s bargaining unit. Of the three, one is a fairly common site of conflict between employers and unions. Hearst wanted to classify six employees as management, which would exclude them from the bargaining unit; the WGA disagreed. For Hearst, this was an easy way to try to shrink the unit, which would save the company some money and weaken the unit’s overall power. The company’s other two arguments are a bit more unusual. Hearst had asked to split its workforce into six separate bargaining units based loosely on geographic location and editorial focus. It argued further that the presence of a mysterious Hearst International Employees Association prevented employees from organizing a new union with the WGA.
None of these arguments impressed the NLRB. The board concluded that the six alleged managers were not managers at all, and that Hearst had misrepresented certain key facts about its brands. In order for Hearst’s octopus-limbed bargaining units to make legal sense, the media properties in its portfolio would have to operate in distinct silos. Magazines in the “Health & Lifestyle” category would have little or nothing to do with magazines in the “Home & Family” category. In fact, Hearst brands collaborate with each other often, and in some cases even share employees, the NLRB found. Hearst’s proposed editorial categories — Home & Family and Health & Lifestyle, among others — are also recent inventions, created in response to the union effort, and don’t reflect long-standing company practices.
And then there’s the matter of the Hearst International Employees Association, or HIEA. The entity, which is registered to the same address as Hearst Communications, filed a motion to intervene in the WGAE’s organizing effort on the basis that it was a union already open to Hearst employees. As Bloomberg Law noted last December, the HIEA could have been a real problem for the WGAE: If Hearst employees are already covered by one union contract, they might have to first decertify the HIEA before organizing a new union with the WGAE. Since no one had heard of the HIEA or paid it any dues, it possessed the hallmarks of an illegal “company union,” created by management to throw up a roadblock to authentic labor organizing. But the collective bargaining agreement Hearst produced as proof of its contract with the HIEA didn’t describe the unit it allegedly represents, or explain how it classifies the employees it’s meant to cover, which is more than a little unusual for a labor contract. The HIEA also didn’t respond to a letter from the NLRB which explained the steps it would have to take in order to properly intervene in the union election, and it didn’t show up to any hearings. This is again very strange, because unions usually object to losing members.
Hearst’s Hail Mary pass may have hurt its overall case. The company told the NLRB that the HIEA collectively represented workers that its attorneys now wanted to separate into different bargaining units. “The fact that the Employer has collectively bargained with the HIEA for eight decades regarding a unit spanning both the Employer’s proposed ‘Health & Lifestyle’ and ‘Home & Family’ units strongly weighs against finding that the Employer’s proposed separate units are appropriate,” the NLRB wrote. Outside the legal world, this is known most commonly as a self-own. There’s no good reason for Hearst to get its six bargaining units if employees already functioned as one.
Hearst employees will now vote in a union election, either in person or by mail. In a statement to Intelligencer, the Hearst organizing committee said it was “pleased” that the NLRB “has directed an election for us to vote as one union, which will include our colleagues from 28 publications, rather than the six separate units proposed by Hearst.”
“This has been a long road and, obviously, these are unprecedented times. We appreciate Hearst’s flexibility and communication during this pandemic to ensure our safety, and we hope management will agree with us that a timely mail-ballot election is the only way to conduct a safe and secure vote. We have already organized our union and look forward to finally formalizing it through an NLRB vote,” they added. “While we acknowledge the work Hearst management has done to keep our colleagues safe and healthy through these extraordinary circumstances, now, more than ever, it is clear that we need to have a seat at the table. We look forward to having a say in the issues that first brought us together. We are grateful for all the support we’ve received from our siblings in the Writers Guild of America, East, our allies across the media industry, and the larger labor movement through this effort.”
Members of Hearst’s public-relations department did not respond to emailed requests for comment by press time.