Vice Canada workers ratify collective agreement as digital journalists turn to unions

Employees of media company Vice's Canadian division have ratified a collective agreement with Vice management after joining the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) union last year, the latest in a wave of unionization in the North American digital media industry.

New deal covers about 170 workers at Canadian branch of global media company

Employees of Vice Canada have joined their U.S. counterparts in joining a union and negotiating a contract. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Employees of the Canadian division of media company Vice have ratified a collective agreement with Vice management after joining the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) union last year.

That deal, announced Monday, is the latest in a wave of unionization in the North American digital media industry. Workers at a number of digital media companies including HuffPost, Gizmodo Media and ThinkProgress have all unionized within the past two years.

The three-year agreement with Vice Canada took nine months of "intense negotiations," according to CMG. It covers about 170 Vice Canada employees working in editorial, production, post-production and operations roles, as well as employees who produce branded content and advertisements, CMG said.

The Canadian Media Guild also represents workers at CBC/Radio Canada, The Canadian Press, Thomson Reuters, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, TVO, and others.

Higher pay, more vacation time

Vice Canada workers were particularly concerned with low wages and a lack of vacation days, according to Maggie McCaw, who works in TV production for Vice Canada and was on the bargaining committee.

"It felt like, if you were going to pay people so little, you could do things like give an extra week [of] vacation and it wouldn't break the bank," said McCaw.

Under the new collective agreement, new Vice Canada employees will get three weeks of vacation instead of two. After three years of work, they will receive four weeks of annual vacation time. Salaries for Vice Canada employees included in the contract will immediately increase by between two per cent and 52.5 per cent, according to CMG, with an average increase of nine per cent.

"It took a while to get to this shared ground," said Kamala Rao, president of CMG.

When CMG and Vice return to the bargaining table to negotiate a new deal in three years, Rao expects an easier process.

"We've got our foundation now, so it should be simpler going forward," she said.

'Not just volunteer blogging anymore'

The move by Vice Canada staff to unionize is unsurprising, said George Smith, an adjunct professor in the industrial relations program at Queen's University and former senior vice-president of human resources at CBC/Radio Canada. New media companies like Vice are evolving, he said, and workers have taken notice of trends in the industry, including cuts at traditional media outlets.

"The kind of people who work in media are inquisitive, they're smart, they're aware," Smith said. 

"When you're reporting on a story of what's going on with … the success or failure of other media entities, you can't help but relate that to your own circumstance."

One U.S. union leader who has helped organize digital journalists said they are planning for the future.

"The business models are falling into place, and I think the people who are working at these sites, the editorial employees, the journalists, the writers, editors, video producers and so forth, are looking at this as a viable place to make a career," said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writer's Guild of America, East.

That union now represents employees at new digital media firms including HuffPost, Gizmodo Media Group (formerly Gawker), Fusion, and ThinkProgress, as well as Vice's digital media operations in the U.S. Staff at investigative journalism website The Intercept and digital news site Slate have also recently signed up with WGA East.

"It's not as much of an experiment as perhaps it was five, 10 years ago," said Peterson of the digital news industry. "It's a place where you can actually build a career, and I think they're looking to collective bargaining as a way to make the career more sustainable … digital is not just volunteer blogging anymore, it's a living."

Vice Canada employee Maggie McCaw said she and her colleagues paid attention to the unionization trend among their U.S. digital media colleagues.

"I would say that definitely gave us confidence in terms of taking action," she said, adding that it "made sense" that workers at other digital media players are unionizing.

"The media industry is so based on contract work and precarious employment," said McCaw. "All of us in this industry are realizing we've lost unions, and there's a desire to bring that back, because we're in this place where we're working contract to contract, a lot of us."