The HuffPo Sweatshop and the Decline of Labor

There’s been an interesting back-and-forth in the left-of-center blogosphere over efforts to organize a boycott of the Huffington Post for its practice of allowing volunteer bloggers to contribute to the site. The case for the boycott seems so obviously wrong that it’s hard to muster the energy to write a rebuttal, so if you’re interested you can read Matt and Julian‘s responses.

But I think the dispute is an interesting window into the state of the contemporary labor movement. Private sector unionization has been dwindling for decades, and of course the labor movement isn’t happy about it. The HuffPo boycott gives us an interesting way of thinking about that decline and why it’s not likely to be reversed any time soon.

The high point of unionization occurred among factory workers in the early-to-mid 20th centuries. Unions thrived in highly concentrated industries like cars and steel where the lack of competition produced generous profit margins. In this top-down environment, ordinary workers had very little leverage because they had few alternative places of employment. Unions offered workers collective leverage over issues like safety and work hours. And they also helped workers seize a share of the monopoly profits their employers enjoyed.

In recent decades, many of these oligopolies have been disrupted by a combination of technological progress and world trade. The steel mills and car plants that were generating obscene profits a half-century ago are now struggling to stay in business. Workers have increasingly shifted to more competitive industries where profit margins are smaller and a real exit option gives employees more bargaining power.

The publishing industry is an extreme example of the trend. The classic daily newspaper was a large, hierarchical company that often enjoyed a monopoly (or at least an oligopoly) in its local market. It used to provide hundreds of blue-collar jobs for typesetters, electricians, truck drivers, and so forth. In many cities, newspaper typesetters wouldn’t have had a lot of alternative places to work, and so the protections of a union contract were extremely valuable.

The publishing industry is changing in two ways. First, most of those blue collar jobs are disappearing. A modern news organization is a team of reporters supported by editors, graphic designers, IT workers, ad salesmen, and other white-collar professionals. Second, very few news organizations are insulated from competition the way most newspapers were in 1980. This means that most news organizations couldn’t raise their workers’ wages very much even if they wanted to.

The Huffington Post is an extreme example of both trends. It’s an online-only publication consisting almost entirely of white-collar workers. And although AOL paid a lot of money for the company, this appears to have been more a reflection of its expected growth potential than actual profits. Given the intense competition in the online news business, those profits are far from guaranteed and may or may not last for very long.

The Newspapers Guild and the National Writers Union yearn for the return of the good old days where their members’ employers enjoyed monopoly profits that they could be induced to share with the employees. Apparently these organizations have convinced themselves that the AOL buyout of HuffPo is a sign that the glory days are coming back. But they’re just seeing what they want to see. The extremely low barriers to entry in Internet news means that the industry is unlikely to resemble the 20th century newspaper business any time soon.

And this means that unions don’t have much to offer 21st century writers. The problem we writers face isn’t that our employers are raking in obscene monopoly profits and not sharing them with us. The problem is that there are far more people who want to write than there are publications able to pay writers. If publishers do start to rake in obscene profits, it’s likely that they’ll plow some of those profits back into their business by hiring more writers. But forcing one particular publication to stop running volunteer content does nothing to change the dynamics of the writing market. The Newspapers Guild and the National Writers Union are basing their actions on an economic model that’s decades out of date.

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