Where’s the digital union?

In a lighter American equivalent to the union kerfuffle here in the London over the digital future of the news union, Time Magazine TV columnist James Poniewozik notes similar issues affecting both the TV writers’ union, which has voted to strike, and his own magazine, where union members are, incredibly, not required to work on the web (though note the union response in the comments to that post). Says James:

As somebody who gets paid to produce content, i.e., write, I can’t pretend to be unbiased. If content is platform-agnostic in this brave new media world, then money should be platform-agnostic too. (That’s not to say I agree with the WGA in every detail, not being privy to the negotiations, but I hear them on general principle.)

This kind of argument is playing out in many workplaces–mine, for instance. You may notice that you are reading this article not in a print magazine but on an electronic computing box, serviced by an Internet hose. Writers and production staff at Time Inc. are covered by a union, which just finished a drawn-out contract renegotiation. (I’m covered by the union but not a member; Time Inc. is an open shop, meaning membership is optional.) A big point of contention between the union and management has been the fact the website’s editors and production staffs are not covered by the union–although union-covered magazine staff, like me, do work for the websites as well.

The deal the company and union reached: magazine staff (like me) can’t be compelled to work for the websites, and the company will not extend union coverage to the website staff. To me–and, for instance, Jeff Jarvis–it’s a worst-of-both-worlds settlement. Instead of treating the ever-more-important websites as if they were ever more important, the magazine staffers get the right to abstain from working for them, and the company gets to avoid, God forbid, having more unionized employees. . .

His colleague Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, who covers the workplace, chimes in on the Time rule with both background and spot-on perspective:

Huh?! On the one hand, we’re told, in so many words, that our futures as content creators depend upon our ability to master the digital realm. On the other, corporate claims our digital future is still made of ether, and therefore our digital contribution can’t be quantified (and compensated).

Here’s a simple start to what’s likely to become a complicated solution. Why not write up new job descriptions for us? When I was hired as a staff writer at this company 10 years ago, the web was not even mentioned. Today, it’s a large part of my job, mainly by dint of my blog. I embrace my web duties; it’s unquestionably more work than just churning out for the magazine, but I recognize my own and my industry’s future lies here, on this blinking, electronic page. Yet I’m still getting mixed messages. One editor told me I shouldn’t “waste” more than 10 minutes a day on the blog. “The magazine comes first,” the editor told me. “It’s what pays you.”

Fine. So quantifying our web contributions remains a management puzzle, perhaps one for those high-priced McKinsey drones to figure out. But legitimize our work online by redefining our jobs. We’re all web writers now.

Yes, but avoiding new job descriptions is the goal of some in this and sidestepping the issues raised by them is the goal of others — when everyone’s goal should be to grab these new opportunities and figure them out.