A few years ago, I was asked to speak to a class at Brown about Out of Sight. It was some kind of environmental sustainability course. The students were smart of course and they liked the book, but they could not get over one huge hump–the idea that capitalism was not the answer. They just really struggled with this. They kept trying to argue that good corporate leadership could solve environmental problems. I replied by saying that, first, corporations exist only to make money and that second, even if you have a really well-meaning CEO or other leadership, if the quarterly profit report doesn’t end up the right way, they will be replaced with someone else who will prioritize profit over saving the world.
What was really going on in that class is that these were rich kids who maybe did care about climate change but were going to work for daddy after graduation and didn’t want to have to question their privilege, which of course I told them directly at the end of class. I started thinking about this again when the story came out about fake leftist Cenk Uygur engaging in open union-busting at his TYT media at the same time that he pretended like he had a chance to win the congressional seat of Katie Hill that she lost through revenge porn, which isn’t too far removed from Uygur’s own gross misogyny. Anyway, when I went on Twitter to talk about Uygur was a fake leftist and a unionbuster, there were quite a few of replies about how I wasn’t being far, how there must be two sides to the issue, how Uygur was a great guy, etc. Basically, they liked his show and therefore were cool with him unionbusting.
This more bitter and confrontational chapter in digital-age organizing came to a head in the high-profile battle to win union recognition at the self-styled progressive news network The Young Turks. Last month, production and post-production workers at TYT announced that they were unionizing with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The network’s management responded with a bid to shut down the organizing drive before it had a chance to get off the ground, refusing to extend voluntary recognition to the workers looking to affiliate with IATSE. And as if to drive the point home, TYT co-founder Cenk Uygur went out of his way to discourage the union drive during a staff meeting. (Attempts to reach Uygur for timely comment on the conflict were unsuccessful.)
What’s behind this rigid managerial opposition to labor organizing at a company otherwise eager to advertise its “progressive” bona fides at every opportunity? HuffPost reported that the company’s executives adopted that old chestnut company managers have used to tamp down union activity since the nineteenth century: They simply can’t afford to pay their workers better or to give them better benefits and longer-term job security. In 2017, the company raised $20 million in venture capital and doubled its staff, but Uygur, who described himself as a supporter of unions, said that the company is still in a “precarious” position. “We’re in a digital media landscape where almost no one makes money or is sustainable,” he told HuffPost reporter Dave Jamieson. “For a smaller digital media company, those are absolutely real considerations. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a union.”
This phrasing didn’t sit well with many on the left. As Jacobin assistant editor Alex Press pointed out on Twitter, the socialist publication has a much smaller staff and budget than TYT but unionized back in 2016. As she said when the organizers finalized their first contract in 2018, “I hope the existence of our union at Jacobin serves to rebuke any boss elsewhere who claims his or her publication can’t afford a union.” That rebuke came swiftly, in TYT’s case, as the company’s hard-line anti-union posture won it a slew of adverse media coverage—and as Uygur continued digging himself into a hole via a string of increasingly combative social media pronouncements on the conflict. Now the union-busting story is in danger of eclipsing the actual union drive.
TYT has come under fire for maintaining dodgy working conditions in the past. In 2018, a former employee filed a racial discrimination claim against the company. The current and former employees I’ve interviewed say that one of the most pressing issues behind the campaign was putting the values TYT espouses on screen into practice in its workplace. Hank Thompson, a former employee who held various positions at the network between 2013 and 2020 (including caring for the office lizard), told me, “We’d edit stories about worker rights and unions and strikes and the crime of low wages and the little guy getting screwed and the importance of standing up for yourself, so if anyone planted the seed, it was Cenk himself.”
A further snarl appeared when Uygur accused IATSE of trying to sabotage his California congressional run against former Representative Katie Hill. He is challenging California Assemblywoman Christy Smith from the left, but the campaign has run into trouble from the start (even before Senator Bernie Sanders pulled his endorsement following public outcry over Uygur’s past inflammatory sexist and racist comments). When he called the timing of the unionization announcement into question on Twitter, intimating a conspiracy against him because IATSE had previously endorsed his opponent, organizers offered a quick rejoinder.
Thompson recalls conversations about the IATSE drive beginning “three or four months” before Uygur announced his candidacy. And a current employee, who asked to remain anonymous due to worries about retaliation, notes that the present unionizing effort is far from the first among TYT workers. The announcement, this worker said, followed the natural timeline of the organizing process. That TYT’s workers would unionize eventually seemed inevitable: As Thompson said, “TYT is staffed by liberals, progressives, and lefties—of course the notion of organizing to demand better would come up. Who did Cenk think would come work for him?”
“We’ve had talks on and off for quite some time and even attempted an effort two years ago, but due to layoffs, we stopped,” the anonymous staffer explained. “Seeing things didn’t change for the better, we renewed our efforts, and we contacted IATSE again in the first week of November 2019. Any accusations that have been made of IATSE in regard to Cenk’s campaign [are] plain wrong and slanderous. Their accusations make it about them, not us as workers.”
Now that the organizing drive at TYT is public, it’s unclear what the next move will be. TYT managers have refused to recognize the union via card check, the simplest form of voluntary recognition. To gain recognition in this way, a majority of workers sign union cards signaling that they want to designate the union as their collective bargaining representative. (According to an organizing committee member, the pro-union forces already have “a solid majority,” which means that a card-check vote would have led directly to recognition.) Instead, management is pushing for a secret ballot election to be administered by a third party outside the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board. TYT executives are also contesting a number of workers’ inclusion in the bargaining unit. Uygur insisted that forcing an election will ensure that every worker has their say, but the staff is unconvinced, and the union is holding strong to its demand for voluntary recognition.
“Personally, I feel let down that TYT won’t recognize our union via card check, instead insisting on [an] election vote held on TYT’s terms in a room attached to Cenk’s office, while excluding a few employees from our unit who IATSE does represent,” the organizing committee member said. “That election is NOT voluntary recognition, and frankly, as a progressive, I find this embarrassing at the home of progressives.”
Thompson had expected to see the unit win swift recognition and was stunned to see TYT flub a chance to enhance its credibility in left-media circles. In his view, cozying up to the union would have been nothing but a net positive for Uygur’s campaign, and for the company as a whole. But now Thompson sees the Young Turk image floundering on the myopia and hypocrisy of the network’s leaders. “Principles aside, from a basic sense of self-protection, how could they not perceive the risk of being labeled union-busters?” he asked in amazement.
The broader issue is that no boss is actually a progressive hero. It’s inherent in the job. Even the most leftist boss needs a union keep the person in check. This is why I am such a huge proponent of graduate student unionization. I was at a conference at Harvard last weekend and sneaked in a slam on Harvard’s unionbusting and said that any professor who opposed graduate student unions was a giant hypocrite who should be ashamed of themselves. The first thing I tell graduate students who work with me is that they should be union members in case I exploit them and they need representation. This should just be basic self-awareness, but of course it is not for many, many people who are deeply invested in their own goodness. It’s certainly the same for people such as Uygur (and by the way, that Bernie’s people would go out the way to have him endorse the guy, despite Uygur’s already well-known misogyny, is one reason why leftists who supported Warren like myself were reinforced in that decision. Bernie simply surrounds himself with some bad people).
Moreover though, and maybe the most important thing, is that a lot of people today, including on the left, look at “leaders,” whether it is Sanders or Uygur or Elon Musk or whoever, as people we can admire and who will save us. But the only people who will save us are ourselves, organizing together to fight for a better future, sometimes with self-proclaimed leaders in the media, politics, or technology, but just as often against them.