If you’re not in the habit of following the convulsions of “new media” — if, in other words, you have a real and potentially fulfilling life — then you’ve missed a lot of drama in the past week. The G/O Media (previously GMG, previously Univision, previously Gawker Media) site Deadspin went through an extraordinary series of self-flagellations when Barry Petchesky, who succeeded Megan Greenwell, was fired for deliberately defying the “stick to sports” mandate of its new owners. Several of the site’s writers quit shortly afterwards in “solidarity”. A 53-year-old freelancer agreed to work for the site and was immediately bullied into quitting by an online mob. Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy gloated at the collapse of his rivals.
It’s not for me to say who is wrong or right here, although I have my personal opinions on the subject. I’d rather focus on something that is, to me at least, more interesting: the idea of perpetual adolescence in the workplace, and the social structures which have evolved to enable that idea.
I wasn’t all that shocked by the firing of Petchesky — putting stories like “Woman Furiously Shits On Floor Of Tim Hortons” and “What Did We Get Stuck In Our Rectums Last Year?” above the fold on his website amounted to slapping his bosses with a white glove and daring them to do something about it. I was surprised by the mass resignations of the staff, and I was flat-out shocked when Samer Paloof and Dave Margary were shamed into resigning by Dave Portnoy in the aftermath. It made me wonder: What kind of people have the means necessary to quit their job on emotional grounds, particularly in the current creative economy?
You can see what the Deadspin employees earned by reading their union contract. While $55,000 to $72,100 a year to write clickbait about Tim Hortons floor-shitting might seem like pretty strong money — and it is — it’s not the kind of salary that leads to financial independence, particularly if you live in New York and like your avocado toast. Nor is the market for general-purpose web writers particularly strong at the moment, so it’s not like any of these people could count on being immediately picked up somewhere else.
It seems reasonable to guess, therefore, that this mass exodus led to more than a couple “margin calls” to parents and relatives. The parents involved could at least take solace in the fact that the majority of their boomerang kids were, themselves, conveniently childless. The G/O Media sites, like their counterparts elsewhere in new media, appear from a distance to be quite allergic to hiring writers who have anything more than a furbaby on their tax returns. Their staff members are mostly single or in childless relationships, they don’t own property. Many of them don’t even own a car. They had, in a manner of speaking, nothing to lose.
It’s not historically common for unions to be founded by itinerants; symphony musicians have unions but buskers don’t, for example. Nor do you typically see unions being operated by people who have the ability to quit at whim without consequences. When Robert Plant decided he couldn’t be bothered with performing in Led Zeppelin after the Celebration Day reunion, he didn’t notify his shop steward about that decision.
Surely the much-discussed GMG Union, founded in the Gawker days for reasons seemingly lost to time, could have done something about the, ahem, labor troubles at Deadspin. They issued bold-sounding statements on the matter and assured the Internet that Petchesky’s firing “would not stand” — but not only did the firing stand, the rest of the union members didn’t even try a strike. They just quit. Can you imagine that happening with, say, the line workers at a GM plant? “They fired our buddy, so we’re all gonna quit!” Of course not. The line workers generally have families, and homes, and responsibilities. They don’t have the ability to wander off on a whim. That’s why they have a union!
So if the Deadspin employees didn’t need the work, and they didn’t want the union to intervene on their behalf, what’s the point of the GMG Union? From what I’ve read, the existence of the GMG Union is basically considered by its members to be a performative act; in other words, the union exists to demonstrate support for unions elsewhere. That’s why you’re not seeing a general strike across G/O Media properties — because that’s not the primary purpose of the GMG Union.
You see this sort of thing a lot on the right wing with people who own AR-15s and whatnot simply because they feel it frustrates their political opponents and demonstrates defiance on their part. This sign, which was produced by the writers at G/O Media’s defunct gossip blog Splinter, illustrates the point:
It’s worth noting that the history of Gawker Media does not involve brutal suppression by “the Pinkertons”, or unsafe work conditions, or child labor, or any of the other venalities typically practiced by the “bosses” of unionized work environments. Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton, was in favor of unionizing and he deliberately failed to discourage the founding of the union. Successive owners paid the union wages without complaint while issuing feeble directives like “try writing more about sports on this sports website.” So who, precisely, are the bosses who require fucking here?
The best analogy I can think of is this: The television show “Sons Of Anarchy”, which offered a profane and hugely depressing look at the travails of a fictional NorCal biker gang, spurred the founding or revival of countless faux biker gangs. The fake gang that benefited most from the SoA hysteria was the Iron Order, an “MC” largely populated by… police officers. That’s right, there’s a biker gang made up of cops.
The so-called one-percent biker gangs bitterly resent the Iron Order, referring to them by names that don’t bear repeating here. This in no way bothers the Iron Order guys, who spend their weekends wearing leather and patches and referring to each other by criminal-sounding nicknames before putting the Harleys back in the garage and getting back in their police cruisers, where they then work to actively undermine the position and activities of the “real” biker gangs.
In a sense, the Iron Order is the realest (most real, for those of you who don’t listen to rap) motorcycle club of all because they do, in fact, represent the most powerful gang of all — organized full-time law enforcement. So it’s what the furry-animal-outfit crowd calls “cosplay”, but it’s also a truthful and brutal reflection of reality. If you have the choice between killing a Hell’s Angel or killing a cop, you should choose the former, because there are parts of America where the Hell’s Angels have no power but cop killers have to live the rest of their lives without using credit cards or leaving fingerprints.
So you can look at the GMG Union as elaborate cosplay, appropriating the trappings of working-class unions for amusement and left-wing social cred in an elaborate act of performative wokeness that borders on self-parody. Or you can see it as a shadow of another, larger power in this country, namely the upper reaches of the middle class whose children live astoundingly privileged lives free from the responsibility, consequences, and cares assigned to their social inferiors. I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep better at night if I can convince myself to believe the former.