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The enduring allure of conspiracies
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May 29, 2019, 2:16 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   May 29, 2019

Many editorial and video employees at Vox Media are, at this hour, finishing up a walkout to protest their employer’s stance on a number of wage and other issues — including guaranteed annual raises, better severance, and revenue sharing on derivative works. (They’re represented by the Vox Media Union, which is an affiliate of Writers Guild of America, East.)

(One piece of friendly advice from a former Guild member: If you want to firmly distinguish a one-hour 1 p.m. walkout from a lunch break, maybe don’t tweet out photos of the chicken satay.)

Unionization in digital media is a broader trend, and workers are watching how companies in the sector respond. And some new jobs data gathered by Joshua Fruhlinger at Thinknum gives us one look at how Vox Media has responded — by shifting its hiring efforts toward contract, part-time, and freelance employees and away from full-time staff.

The story is told by the two charts below. On November 16, 2017 — the day before Vox Media staffers announced their intention to unionize, Vox listed 102 full-time job openings and just 2 that were part-time, contract, or freelance. That’s a 51:1 ratio.

Fast forward to today and those numbers stand at 57 full-time positions and 25 part-time or contract — more like a 2:1 ratio.

Most of Vox Media’s less than full-time employees — the ones who get a 1099 form come tax time instead of a W-4 — aren’t eligible to join the union.

While full-time openings began a steep decline at almost exactly the moment the unionization was announced, Vox Media didn’t really begin listing contract or part-time jobs in large numbers until last November.

(Note that the Y-axes on these two charts are different.)

It’s very important to remember that Vox Media isn’t operating in a vacuum here. The general outlook for the digital media companies in its class — Vice, BuzzFeed, and so on — is markedly worse today than it was 18 months ago. November 16, 2017 — that full-time hiring peak — was also the day that The Wall Street Journal published news that BuzzFeed was “on track to miss its revenue target this year by a significant amount, the latest sign that troubles in the online-ad business are making it tough for new-media upstarts to live up to lofty expectations.” I think of that story as a useful marker for a shift toward the pessimistic in the industry and realization of what the duopoly hath wrought.

In other words, a corporate shift away from full-time staffing and toward a more part-time, contract, and freelance workforce might well have been something Vox Media would have wanted to do even if the Vox Media Union had never come into existence.

That said…this is also a pretty common way for a company to respond to labor organizing.

How you interpret this will probably depend on your priors. A greedy company pushing full-time staff toward a gig-economy-style existence? A union shooting itself in the foot by incentivizing its employer to shift toward less secure jobs? A corporation showing exactly why unionization is important and that it can’t be counted on to be an altruistic employer? A company in a struggling sector just trying to ensure it has flexibility in how it allocates its resources, at a time when many of its digital peers or shutting down entirely or going at firesale prices?

I await a Vox explainer on this economic Rashomon, whenever everyone’s back at their desks.

Update, May 31: Vox Media publisher Melissa Bell sent me this statement: “We are actively hiring full-time employees and we have not shifted to offering more part-time and contract roles in lieu of employees. We have made no changes to our hiring plans since the formation of the Vox Media Union and an analysis solely based on a scraping of open roles on our website is not a sufficient measurement of full-time hires versus part-time and/or contractor roles. And, we hired more than 150 full-time employees in 2018, and expect to hire about the same number this year.”

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