Tony Burke, Assistant General Secretary of Unite, details the victory of the Newspaper Guild Of New York in fighting for the right to free expression online.
As unions are now catching up with other progressive groups in using social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and other e-communications networks, employers around the globe are busy scrutinising them (as British Airways did during Unite cabin crew’s dispute in 2010 and 2011) in an effort to stop workers using e-networks to organise, criticise them and to eventually discipline them.
Now, an interesting development has taken place in the USA.
Earlier this year a dispute broke out between the 3,000 strong Newspaper Guild Of New York (an ALF-CIO affiliate) and the global news and information giant Thomson Reuters over the use of its networks to criticise the company and on the key issue of discussing their pay, working conditions and employment rights on company social media.
The union had filed a complaint of unfair labour practice to the US National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) after environment correspondent Deborah Zabarenko, who chairs the union at Thomson Reuters, was reprimanded for a message she posted on a Reuters Twitter feed.
The text of the message, in sharp response to a management request for suggestions on how to make the company “the best place to work,” was:
“One way to make this the best place to work is to deal honestly with Guild members.”
The Newspaper Guild of New York said it had now reached an agreement after filing the legal complaint with against the company.
“Aside from guaranteeing our freedom to express ourselves about job conditions on these networks, the agreement also puts to rest the final dispute the Guild had with Thomson Reuters stemming from the company’s declaration of impasse in contract talks back in January 2010.”
The union withdrew all other unfair labour practice charges as part of a contract settlement ratified in July. The social media agreement, was finalised recently ironically via an e-mail exchange between union president Bill O’Meara and Reuters Americas editor Jim Gaines.
The deal does prevent members from making personal attacks against co-workers or managers, or against individual Thomson Reuters stories or products on social media and states:
“Our wish is for people to benefit safely from social networks, not to muzzle anyone. Journalists are people too, with all the rights of citizens. If we want to tweet or post about a school play, a film or a favorite recipe, we are free to do so.
“When dealing with matters of public importance and actual or potential subjects of coverage, however, Reuters journalists should be mindful of the impact their publicly expressed opinions can have on their work and on Reuters.
“In our Twitter and Facebook profiles, for example, we should identify ourselves as Reuter’s journalists and declare that we speak for ourselves, not for Thomson Reuters.
“We expect our journalists to reach conclusions through reporting, but they must also demonstrate the intellectual discipline to keep their conclusions susceptible to further reporting, which requires a posture of open mindedness and enlightened skepticism. This is difficult to demonstrate in the social networks’ short forms and under the pressure of thinking-writing-posting in real time.
“But maintaining this posture is critical to our credibility and reputation as journalists. When in doubt about a post, tweet or other action on social networks, we must enlist a second pair of eyes, even at the cost of some delay.”
The deal says that nothing in it should be interpreted as inhibiting the exchange of ideas about matters that deal with employees’ common welfare. Nor is there any prohibition on using social media for speech protected by the National Labour Relations Act, such as candidly discussing wages, hours and working conditions.
This is an important development in the fight back and campaigning to come, as it underpins worker rights in the USA to publicly discuss pay, working conditions and employment issues on social media. It however remains to be seen how many other companies take heed.
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