Hearst has landed in a labor pickle despite that it is one of the few major media companies to not resort to furloughs, layoffs or salary reductions tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
A union seeking to represent about 3,000 editorial employees at Hearst Magazines won a major battle when the National Labor Relations Board rejected the company’s petition to have the union split into six different bargaining units.
In a 133-page decision on Friday, NLRB regional director John J. Walsh ruled that the full-time and regular part-time editorial, video, design and social-media staff employed at the 29 Hearst brands share a “community of interest” and should therefore be part of one bargaining unit of the Writers Guild of America, East.
Hearst had refused to offer voluntary recognition of the WGAE as the bargaining unit and instead urged that there should be six different units for brands focused on areas like “health & lifestyle,” “home & family,” “enthusiasts” and automobiles, as well as separate units for Alabama employees and editorial operations.
Despite labor tensions, Steve Swartz, CEO of parent company Hearst Corp., in early April told employees in its magazine, newspaper and TV divisions that they would be spared cuts and were getting a 1 percent raise due to the extra work they were performing during the pandemic.
In the magazine division, the company is saving money by combining the June and July issues of some of its biggest titles, including Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire, into a single summer issue. Cosmopolitan, one of Hearst’s biggest money makers, plans to combine July and August into a single issue, versus a year earlier, when it published three issues in the summer.
The WGAE had stunned management last November when, after a months-long campaign, it announced that an “overwhelming majority” of the editorial employees said that they wanted to be represented by the union, which marked the first time employees had opted to unionize.
“Collective bargaining is more essential than ever in these difficult times,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East. “The employees in the Hearst unit have already made their choice clear: They want to join with the WGAE and bargain with management — they want to participate in the decisions that affect their work lives.”
Hearst Magazines president Troy Young did not return a call seeking comment.
The NLRB’s ruling said that the company must turn over contact information on all 3,000 employees by Wednesday, May 13. The union is pushing to conduct a vote entirely by mail due to concern over the coronavirus. Both sides must submit their petitions on how they wish to conduct the vote by May 15.
The company has a 14-day window to appeal the ruling.
Insiders said resentment was simmering behind the scenes for at least a year.
Veteran editorial employees at Hearst were concerned that Young and his chief content officer, Kate Lewis, hailed from the digital world. While digital was growing faster than print, in the pre-pandemic world, print was still generating the majority of the magazine division’s revenues. But revenue in print has been curtailed as many advertisers paused or pulled ads.
Tensions exploded into the open in late 2018 and early 2019 when then-Esquire editor Jay Fielden was overruled in his efforts to publish a heavily researched exposé on a long history of alleged sexually predatory behavior by Hollywood power director Bryan Singer.
The exposé, which was in the works for over a year, was rejected by Hearst brass over legal concerns.
The writers eventually brought the article to The Atlantic, which published the explosive story online in March and in the April print edition. So far, it has not drawn any known legal challenges.
Fielden said in May 2019, he was exiting when his three-year contract expired in June 2019, and he was replaced by Esquire digital editor Michael Sebastian.