Story and photo by Shahla Farzan, 2016 JAWS Fellow
Like many workers, journalists face a range of issues in the workplace, from harassment to discrimination. Feelings of powerlessness and isolation often prevent journalists from voicing concerns about issues, particularly for freelancers and other contractors. At a panel on workplace challenges at JAWS CAMP on Oct. 29, five panelists spoke about their personal experiences and suggested potential ways to navigate difficult situations.
Rosemary Armao, former JAWS president and professor at SUNY-Albany, described some experiences involving sexual harassment. In one instance, a colleague proposed they go undercover as a “swinging” couple.
“Even as I’m talking these things seem outrageous, but they didn’t seem so at the time,” said Rosemary.
Marissa Evans, a reporter at The Texas Tribune,said that, after being abruptly fired from a job, she felt pressured to sign a buyout agreement from the same employer who had terminated her. Included in the buyout contract was a nondisparagement clause that prevented her from speaking ill of the former employer.
“I now understand the importance of building a support network,” said Marissa, who reached out to JAWS member Miranda Spivack, who organized the panel.
Alina Tugend, journalist and former columnist for The New York Times, gave a rundown of potential options for workers in nonunionized workplaces. First, she said, a worker should carefully examine company policy and determine what her rights are under that policy.
“Remember, you do not have a First Amendment right to express political views if you work in a private workplace,” Alina said.
Formally documenting instances of workplace discrimination and/or harassment is key, including emails and phone calls. Alina also pointed out that a worker should know exactly what she wants to gain from making the complaint before contacting her employer.
One potential option for journalists in nonunionized workplaces is to create a union. Alice Ollstein, reporter at the nonprofit news site ThinkProgress, discussed how she and her colleagues unionized.
It’s a common misconception that workers should only unionize in response to poor workplace conditions, Alice said.
“Even if things are good now, we shouldn’t trust that things will always be this good,” she added. “We should have legal protection.”
Because their newsroom was relatively young, ThinkProgress reporters had to educate themselves on the unionization process.
After a long bargaining period, reporters at ThinkProgress got their employer to voluntarily recognize the new union. Their new three-year contract, which was ratified in July 2016, includes 12 weeks’ paid leave for new parents, guaranteed editorial independence from funders, and a salary floor.
Kim Bobo, social justice advocate and executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, echoed the importance of organizing fellow workers.
Workers who form a group of two or more people gain protection under the National Labor Relations Act, said Kim. If employer retaliation occurs, the National Labor Relations Board is legally bound to investigate.
“It’s good to fight for yourself, but more importantly it’s good to fight for others. Whatever happens to you will happen to others in the future,” she said.
Check out the resources from this CAMP session at members.jaws.org.