Union’s Image Renewed in the Digital Media Era: Die ZEIT
Online Die ZEIT, the renowned German national weekly newspaper based in Hamburg, launched its online edition about 10 years ago. A staff of 30 online editors and 50-60 journalists put in great efforts to making ZEIT ONLINE successful.
Tina Groll joined in 2009 as editor of the Careers section of Zeit Online. Not after long did she became aware that the digital staff’s hard work was not receiving adequate pay back.
“We had big salary gaps between journalists and editors doing the same job in different media,” said Groll. “People had the same job, same education and experience, but some earned twice as much as others.” This deeply embedded company-wide pay gap was largest “between journalists working for print and online”, Groll underscored.
After discussions with the company, Groll and her colleagues realized the limitations in their bargaining power as the only representation they had was via an employee committee, not a union.
“Only unions have the power to force the employer to pay higher salaries,” said Groll.
Working on union’s rates to get youth on board
The internal injustice and high pay gaps situation persisted for 2 to 3 years, and in the end Groll realized that the only way to bring about change was to unionise and enable the digital staff to bargain collectively. Without unionization, “our legal options were limited” she said.
It’s been many years since union rates have been state of the art in much of the German media industry.
“Most of my colleagues thought that it would be impossible to get union rates,” Groll recalled.
The idea of fair pay was sufficient to convince the staff to act, but a problem remained among younger workers.
“Unions in general had an old-fashioned image and even the concept of “union” seemed distant for younger workers.
Today, younger workers comprise of the majority of the digital workforce. The student workers, 30% of the ZEIT Online staff, also work under special short-term contracts that make bargaining even more complicated.
Unionization needs to adapt to today’s employment circumstances. The young staff needs to be approached, convinced the union can improve their working life and that it is not a matter of the union doing something for them but of making them realise they are the union.
In order to recruit younger workers the union adopted special rates for student members and their support was central to the overall success the union achieved.
The union approaches to the employees emphasised the culture of the company, and highlighted the workers’ pride in the product they produced and how with a collective voice they could help ensure people’s working environments could be enhanced.
In the opening negotiations with the company, the union adopted an approach highlighting the positive aspects of collective agreements for the company, manifesting itself as a mediator.
The union’s efforts achieved great success.
Within 4 weeks, 70% of the workforce were unionised, including the student workers. T
he union successfully negotiated a collective agreements and pay increase for staff and freelances. Twenty freelance journalists were offered staff contracts.
The union remains more than a bargaining tool. It is also viewed as a sounding board and educator for employees. It’s been working on activities such as coaching and developing stronger communications with its members.
It has shown it can attract younger workers and that unions are vital to ensure equality and fairness in the digital media industry.
The next step is for the union to begin negotiations on working hours – watch this space!