Inside The Onion, ClickHole, and The A.V. Club’s Vote to Unionize

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The employees at Onion Inc., the company behind satire sites The Onion and ClickHole as well as The A.V. Clubhave voted to unionize and will be the latest group of online publication staffers to join the Writers Guild of America. The news was announced today in a post published at The A.V. Club revealing that a majority of staffers at Onion Inc. (90%, to be exact) supported the move, which was made official this past Monday. Creative staffs at The Onion, ClickHole, The A.V. Club, The TakeoutOnion Labs, and the company’s video and art departments are now members of WGAE, , which also represents writers from sites like Vice, Vox, and Salon as well as TV writers from Saturday Night Live, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and many more. In its post about the news, The A.V. Club included a copy of the letter staffers sent to management at Onion Inc. and Univision (Univision has owned a minority stake in the company since 2016), which reads, in part:

Why we’re unionizing:

To have a seat at the table

We believe Onion Inc.’s success begins and ends with its creative staffs, who are responsible for producing the content that sustains the company’s reputation and profitability. We best understand what our departments need to succeed. We must ensure that we are all part of any major decision-making process that affects the company’s organizational structure, editorial practices, or financial outcomes.

To strengthen our culture and maintain editorial independence

We seek to preserve the collaborative spirit and creative integrity of Onion Inc. Maintaining a safe and supportive environment is imperative in facilitating the creation of high-quality work. It is also essential that our creative staffs continue to have independent oversight of the editorial, graphical, and video work they produce, and that this is reflected in the hierarchy of the editorial publications.

To ensure fair wages, hiring practices, consistent benefits, and severance pay

We want to ensure fair compensation for everyone who contributes to the success of Onion Inc., including contractors. This includes a workplace with pay equity, job stability, quality healthcare, overtime compensation, concrete parental leave, and formalized channels for communication with management. We want to prioritize recruitment and retention of people with backgrounds that are often underrepresented in our industry, and hold Univision and Onion Inc. management accountable in adhering to our values.

We spoke with two Onion staffers, Associate Video Director Fran Hoepfner and Video Editor Sam Dunnewold, about the news this morning:

Congrats on the news! What was the reasoning behind the decision, and when did you begin discussing the possibility of unionizing?

Fran: Thank you! So, this started coming together late last summer and last fall and was born both out of a desire to preserve so much of what is good about Onion Inc. – not only The Onion and ClickHole but A.V. Club, Takeout, [Onion] Labs, and all of our production staffs — as well as taking a broader look out at the industry around us not only at other media websites, but also sites like Funny or Die and comedy websites, and just seeing there being such precariousness made us want to sort of provide some insurance on what we all like about working here.

Why now in particular?

Fran: In general, I feel like a lot of people who work here believe as if we’re in kind of an upswing and that things are going really well for us, and there’s a lot that’s special about what we’re making and doing here, and we want to protect that. I don’t think all union organizing comes out of “Things are bad, so let’s nail everything down” – it’s also like “Things are good, so let’s nail them down.”

How many staffers are included in this? It’s not just writers, correct?

Sam: Yeah, that’s right. In total it’s about 90 people. It’s a pretty even split between writing staff and production staff.

Fran: Yep. So we’ve got writing staff, Onion, ClickHole, A.V. Club, Takeout as well as Onion Labs, and then we’ve got our entire video production staff.

Sam: And motion graphics staff and just regular graphics staff.

How does this work with freelance writers or anyone who works for these sites that aren’t full-time staffers?

Fran: At this point, this only includes folks who are currently in office, but part of what we want to do is nail down some hiring practices with freelancers to make sure that those in production specifically don’t get led on with contract jobs or something like that – just set a better freelance hiring process in stone.

Sam: I think there’s some amount of gray area between full-time and out of the union entirely, but one of the issues specifically in video that we’re most interested in is trying to get a little bit better of a deal for people who are stuck in a permalancing situation.

Fran: Yeah. And what I’ll say about the writing staff is there’s sort of different tiers of freelancers, in that you have longtime freelancers who only ever want to be freelancers – we’re not trying to mess with that system. I think each editorial staff will set their own bounds for that.

Sam: And this should not affect our ability to have temporary or part-time freelancers as part of our staff either.

I was curious about that – about how it might affect, say, someone who is newer and not a WGA member who wants to get their foot in the door. 

Fran: Yeah, this ought not to be a barrier to entry. And in addition, one of the tenets of our unionizing letter is pushing for diversity across all departments and extending hands out from every direction to bring more people aboard.

What was the response like from management? Was it a smooth process?

Fran: It was a pretty smooth and quick process for us. It sort of kicked off late last summer/early fall, and we’re all to some extent logged on and seeing not only that other publications are joining, but also that every other publication under GMG, our sister sites, is unionized, so I think that really got the ball rolling, and people were really excited about doing this. I don’t know if you want to speak to the production side of this…

Sam: Yeah, I think it was pretty similar. Video got reached out to right before the holidays and then right after the holidays, and then we sort of spread the news around late January/early February, and then in February, every week there was some sort of meeting after work and we all got on the same page mostly, and here we are. We’re pretty excited.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to writers or creative staffers at other sites that are thinking about unionizing? 

Fran: I would absolutely encourage people to get the ball rolling at their own publications. What’s so special about working at Onion Inc. is that very rarely do you work in a position that doesn’t involve working with other departments, and this just got mass amounts of people in different departments talking to each other about the nature of their jobs and what they liked and what they wanted to change, and I think it is a great opportunity for any publication to get to know the people they’re working with so they have a stronger voice as one.

Sam: I’d also add that the industry at large is really unionizing a lot right now, and the more publications we can get unionized right now, the better off the whole industry is going to be. I’m really excited to be a part of that wave that’s been happening over these past few years.

Is there anything you think is important for a typical reader/supporter of your sites to know in terms of the significance of this news?

Sam: I think the biggest thing that we’ve been talking about is wanting fans of The Onion or ClickHole or any of our publications to know that it’s pretty easy to see all of these websites as this thing that gets delivered to your desk in the morning that is funny and a nice attraction, but someone makes that. We all make that. The fact that we are individuals and not just “The Onion” is important.

Fran: Yeah, and I think it’s a little bit of a peek behind the curtain in terms of letting our readers know that we care about continuing to make The Onion, A.V. Club, ClickHole – the best sites that they like reading – and want to preserve what they like by making our lives better too.

I do think it’s an important reminder that there are people behind these sites who are trying to make a living. I think with The Onion in particular, since it’s been around for so long and has been so consistent, it’s easy to take for granted, because you can count on that voice and that style to be here.

Fran: Thank you! And we want it to stick around.

Sam: Yeah. And we want to keep that voice and that consistency too.

Read more about the news over at The A.V. Club.

Inside The Onion and ClickHole’s Vote to Unionize