An effort to unionize hundreds of Hearst Magazine editorial workers at outlets like Esquire and Popular Mechanics hit a potentially significant roadblock with the discovery that the employees already may be represented by another union that’s been around for decades.
The odd twist emerged after a union called the Hearst International Employees Association filed to intervene in the Writers Guild of America, East’s highly publicized organizing effort at the company’s 24 magazine brands.
News of the existing union comes amid vigorous actions from Hearst opposing WGAE’s organizing drive. The company set up a website about “what it really means to be in a union” earlier this month and was alleged to have created anti-union social media accounts on
HIEA President Enrique Reyes declined to comment on the union’s intervenor motion but said the union has been around for nearly 75 years and is open to workers throughout Hearst—not just editorial employees.
The WGAE said the intervenor motion is another effort by Hearst management to scuttle the union organizing effort.
“The Hearst executives are doing everything they can to try and divide employees in an attempt to derail union organizing efforts,” the WGAE said in an emailed statement. “In this case, they are claiming a union already exists for a couple dozen employees scattered across multiple magazines.”
Hearst and attorneys for the company didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
Overlap With New Union
News of a union potentially already in existence at Hearst is particularly unusual given that the company makes no mention of the HIEA union on its website offering employees information on the WGAE campaign.
“While some media organizations – particularly a number of newer companies – have made the decision to voluntarily recognize unions, we are not every other media company,” Hearst said on its website. “We are Hearst, and the benefits, work environment, commitments, and history we provide for employees are very different from others in our industry.”
Management attorneys have suggested that the HIEA represents about 25 Hearst Magazine employees who would otherwise be covered by a new WGAE-affiliated union, according to WGAE spokesperson Jason Gordon.
The WGAE doesn’t know of any covered employees who had ever heard of the HIEA or seen a contract from the union that represents them, Gordon said.
The HIEA lists 300 W. 57th St. in New York as its headquarters, the same address as Hearst Communications headquarters. The secrecy of the union and its location is suspect, according to Gordon. He said it’s indicative of a “company union,” referring to an illegal union run through employer influence that’s often meant to prevent independent unions from forming.
The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the legitimacy of the newly discovered union.
A union like WGAE seeking to represent workers who already have a union would have several options, said Anne Lofaso, a labor law professor at West Virginia University and a former National Labor Relations Board attorney.
It could run a decertification campaign to oust the existing union, but even if it succeeded, it would likely face a year delay between the decertification vote and an election for it to represent the workers, Lofaso said. The National Labor Relations Act calls for at least a year between representation elections.
There are other options, however, that could be quicker, Lofaso said. A union like the WGAE could try to convince an NLRB regional director that the existing union was defunct, which would clear the way for an election to represent the workers, she said.
Alternatively, if the two unions could come to an agreement, then the existing union could disclaim its interest in representing the workers and thus allow for a new union vote, Lofaso said.
In addition to those possible routes, the WGAE seemingly could use additional legal tools to oust the HIEA if allegations that it’s an illegal company union are substantiated.
The HIEA had 79 members and about $50,000 in assets as of March 2018, the union said in its most recent filing with the Labor Department. The union has been around at least since 2000, the earliest date for which annual union reports are available on the DOL website.
The union didn’t file a mandatory annual report with the DOL in 2019 and had its tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service automatically revoked in 2010 after failing to file a Form 990 for three consecutive years, according to the two agencies’ online databases.
“As far as we know, no one in this union has seen the contract that supposedly covers them,” the WGAE said in its statement.
The NLRB will now likely need to decide whether HIEA is a legitimate union and if it overlaps with the proposed WGAE bargaining unit.