Reposted with permission from The Canary
Inteview by Slava Zilba of TheCanary.co
On 25 March, staff at progressive media outlet Truthdig got an email from on high. It essentially fired them and announced the dissolution of the company. Two weeks earlier, they had gone on strike over “unfair labor conditions”.
A week before the email, The Canary spoke to Truthdig‘s star columnist – the award-winning Chris Hedges. He was representing the striking employees, and he highlighted the role the site’s publisher was playing in tearing down what employees had spent years building up.
The publisher of Truthdig, Zuade Kaufman, who has lent the site an estimated two or three million dollars, has had over the past few months several clashes with the editor-in-chief and co-owner of the site, Robert Scheer. These disputes have revolved around editorial decisions that Scheer has made. And they include his critiques of the Democratic Party, his critique of the whole Russiagate hysteria. And finally, the publisher decided that she would remove Scheer… she did this by attempting to smear him claiming that… he was bullying and harassing the staff, which was patently untrue. And so Scheer got legal counsel. They started mediation. And then the publisher… gave a deadline… by which she would withdraw the money from the site and bankrupt the site and therefore seize control of the site, all of its assets, get rid of Scheer.
right before the deadline, all the senior editors including the copy desk – well, initially it was all the senior editors and major contributors at Truthdig… – announced in a joint letter that was posted on the site on 11 March that they were beginning a work stoppage to protest not only the removal of Scheer, but a series of unfair labour conditions that the publisher had imposed on the workers at Truthdig.
Signing away worker protections
Some of the controversial labour practices Hedges mentioned included:
contracts that compel workers to sign away their basic labour protections, employee handbook guidelines that are tantamount to gag orders, and then – within these contracts which Bob Scheer never saw – requirement that all employees report directly to the publisher Zuade Kaufman.
The contracts are quite amazing and include a waiver of just about every civil and labour right you have, in fact probably every one. … This becomes a requirement – to waive all of these protections – in order to work for Truthdig.
He also spoke of a “very disingenuous” open letter from Kaufman (which staff members quickly responded to), saying:
she painted [it] as if her staff had a wide variety of benefits which, in fact, as far as we know, only one person on the staff has, and they are not on the editorial side anyway. There has never been a parental leave policy, and we don’t have – collectively – performance reviews, and there aren’t raises. She also tried to argue that our concerns about unfair labour practices had been not brought to her attention. That was also patently untrue. There were two women on the editorial team who raised concerns directly to her about her policy – this is appalling – of forcing copy editors (who all joined us the next day on the strike) to remain on call… for shifts that can last several hours. But she’s only paying them for the amount of time they’re actively engaged in editing stories. There was another senior editor who took additional labour complaints, including the… issue of signing away labour and civil rights, to Kaufman’s lawyer in February. There was another female staffer who resigned over a separate labour complaint a year ago.
Destroying an “important progressive site”
Hedges stressed that:
It is really the abuse of power by a wealthy publisher, who is destroying the editorial independence and, I would argue, the journalistic credibility of an important progressive site…
After their dismissal, Hedges and several colleagues wrote that Kaufman had:
dismissed her employees without any kind of severance package in a last-ditch effort to seize absolute control of a website we have all poured our hearts into for years
They also pointed out that:
while she can retreat into her privilege amid an unprecedented public health crisis, the rest of us do not have that luxury.
The Canary reached out to Truthdig for comment, but had received no response at the time of writing.