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August 2011, Week 1

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Huffington's Bogus Defense of Unpaid Bloggers

by Mike Elk

Working in These Times
an e-publication of In These Times
August 2, 2011

http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/entry/11771/

While many view the labor practices of the Huffington Post
as affecting only a small handful of writers, Arianna
Huffington's willingness to classify people working for her
site as "non-employees" could impact the rights of all
workers.

As unpaid internships become the norm among a new generation
of workers, more and more employers are finding interesting
ways to classify those working for them as "non-employees"
who don't need to be paid. This classification occurs
despite the fact that employers often force unpaid workers
to obey the same rules as paid workers.

Huffington, who sold her business to AOL for $315 million
early this year, continues to deny that her website's unpaid
bloggers (and there may be as many as 8,000) have an
employee-like relationship to the company. (After the sale,
The Newspaper Guild (TNG) and the National Writers Union
(NWU) in March called for bloggers to boycott the Huffington
Post and join an electronic picket line against the
publication.)

She and Huffington Post Executive Editor Nico Pitney have
argued that their bloggers needn't be paid because writing
for Huffington is like writing for social media sites like
Facebook or Twitter. In a candid e-mail exchange on a
private liberal listserv that was leaked early this year,
Pitney compared unpaid Huffington bloggers to Twitter or
Facebook users, saying:

    i wonder whether twitter, facebook, and dailykos will
    ever pay me for the content dive provided them, and
    which they've happily monetized. probably not, but i
    don't mind. i understood what i was getting out of
    writing for them when i did it. which is I think the
    same case for our bloggers, who get their own benefits
    from posting on our site, ask to do it, and often yell
    at me (usually justifiably) when it takes too long for
    their post to go live.

Likewise, Arianna Huffington compared unpaid bloggers to
social media users in a column explaining why she does not
pay her writers.

However, the standards of conduct imposed on Huffington Post
bloggers are regimented and employee-like compared to what's
expected from social media users. (Full disclosure: I was
"fired" as an unpaid blogger for the Huffington Post in
January 2011 for not meeting such standards, when I used my
status as a Huffington Post blogger to help 200 construction
workers break into a conference of bankers.)

On Twitter and Facebook, users can post anything they want
(as long as it does not violate laws; e.g., threats).
Bloggers at the Huffington Post, on the other hand, must
have every single post approved by an editor before it is
allowed to be published. To state the obvious, Twitter or
Facebook do not pre-approve each status update or tweet. If
the Huffington Post doesn't feel that the post by an unpaid
blogger meets its standards of journalism, it will not
publish the post.

To be even more specific about the standards expected from
Huffington Post bloggers: The site does not allow its
bloggers to use anonymous sourcing. Likewise, Huffington
Post often factchecks posts before they go up. On several
occasions when I used to write (again, unpaid) for the site,
I received phone calls and emails from editors asking me to
provide more details and sourcing in order to verify a
statement I had written in a blog post. On Twitter and
Facebook, no editors call you up to check the accuracy of
your statements; you can simply post whatever you want.

The Huffington Post, however, goes to great lengths to
decide what can be written for the site so that its content
appears professional and equal in quality to content written
for sites that do pay all of their writers. The columns of
paid Huffington Post reporters appear side by side next to
many unpaid bloggers -  making it difficult for most readers
to tell what content is produced by paid writers and unpaid
writers.

Finally, the Huffington Post imposes very strict standards
of conduct on its bloggers to protect its reputation as a
professional journalistic publication. Andrew Breitbart was
demoted as a front-page blogger because of what he said
about progressive activist Van Jones in an interview with
the Daily Caller. And in my case, as Huffington Post
Executive Business Editor Peter Goodman told me upon
"firing" me, "You pulled a stunt and damaged our reputation
and that's why you're not writing for us anymore."

So is the Huffington Post a social media site as it likes to
claim while defending its policy of not paying writers? Or
is the website a professional journalistic entity? Legally
speaking, the answer is unclear. But what is clear is that
the ambiguity of the employment relationship of Huffington
bloggers allows the website to profit off unpaid bloggers'
writing.

The larger trend toward unpaid labor

In creative industries such as journalism or the arts,
workers have always worked for little or nothing in order to
gain the exposure needed to further their career. But the
use of unpaid work is spreading beyond creative industries
as a new generation hunts for jobs in a difficult economy.

According to "Paving the Way Through Paid Internships," a
report by Demos and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI)
published last year, in 1992, only 9 percent of graduating
college students had held an internship. By 2006, 83 percent
of graduating college students had held an internship. The
EPI estimates that at least 2.5 million students work each
year as interns, with anywhere from one-fourth to one-half
of all interns working unpaid - often in violation of many
state and federal labor laws forbidding such practices.

But it's not just young workers that are working for free in
the hope of eventually gaining a job anymore.

"We realized what a big problem this was when we started
discovering middle age workers who had been laid off that
were working unpaid for six months as a tryout period for a
company, while collecting their unemployment benefits in
order to get by," says EPI Vice President Ross Eisenbrey.
Workers who remained unemployed for long period of times
often face discrimination because employers feel those
workers have lost skills; thus many unemployed workers
choose to work unpaid for companies in order to gain skills
and to make their resumes look better.

Unpaid labor - whether in the form of interns or unpaid
Huffington Post bloggers - is an extreme form of another
trend in America's workforce: the shift away from full-time
official employees (with benefits) to independent
contractors. A few decades ago, nearly all workers were
classified as full-time employees, not independent
contractors, who are ineligible for healthcare and
retirement benefits and denied key rights such as
unemployment insurance, workers' compensation insurance,
minimum wage and overtime laws, and, most significantly, the
right to join a union. Now, the Department of Labor
estimates that 30 percent of all companies misclassify
employees as independent contractors in order to avoid
paying benefits to workers and giving workers these benefits
and rights.

While some prominent labor-funded progressives, such as
former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, American Prospect
Executive Editor Robert Kuttner, and several individuals
from Campaign for America's Future have continued to blog at
the Huffington Post - in violation of the NWU/TNG picket
line - union leaders such as AFL-CIO President Richard
Trumka, USW President Leo Gerard, and UAW President Bob King
strongly back the Huffington boycott because they realize
the dramatic effect that Arianna Huffington's labor
practices could have on all workers, not just journalists
and other writers.

"If we as a labor movement allow the Huffington Post to get
away with this - pretty soon we are going to see young kids
walking around construction sites working as unpaid
apprentices," said Ironworkers Local 377 member Mike Daly at
San Francisco's Labor Fest, after a panel titled  "Blogging,
Journalism, The Net & Free Labor."

A divide now exists in many workplaces between employees
classified as regular full-time employees with full benefits
and rights, and employees doing similar jobs but classified
as independent contractors. With the rise of a new
generation of young people often forced to work as an unpaid
interns in order to gain a job, how long will be it before a
similar divide emerges in the workplace between workers who
are paid and workers who are deemed unworthy of being paid?

[Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has
worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine
Workers, the Campaign for America's Future, and the Obama-
Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as
a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes
frequently for In These Times as well as Alternet, The
Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.]

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