Prominent labor leaders may have to cross 'virtual' picket line against Huffington Post


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A strike called by The Newspaper Guild against a national website may have some unlikely people crossing the virtual picket line: leaders of the nation's labor organizations, including the United Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO.

The Newspaper Guild issued the call for a strike to writers who submit free material to The Huffington Post in the wake of the website being acquired by AOL for $315 million. The money will be paid to the privately owned website's co-founders, including Arianna Huffington, and its private investors.

The guild said the site's use of citizen journalists who cover events, mostly political campaigns, for free, and bloggers, who contribute a vast quantity of content to the site, is exploitative.

"Since 2007 and 2008, it's been a blood bath out there," Lauri Lebo, an organizer for the guild, said about layoffs of journalists from newspapers and magazines.

Many of those journalists, trying to keep their resumes fresh and their hands in the business, have turned to writing for The Huffington Post.

"People write for free with the idea that they can get this mass exposure," she said. "As for The Huffington Post, their success was built on the backs of unpaid labor. They're exploiting these journalists who still passionately believe in journalism and believed their exposure in The Huffington Post would move them forward."

Ms. Lebo said she started working on a campaign to call for a boycott of free writing for The Huffington Post before the sale, but then, when the sale was announced, the matter took on additional urgency.

"We're asking people not to write for The Huffington Post until there is some sort of pay policy set up for the bloggers," she said.

Mario Ruiz, a spokesman for The Huffington Post, said the website does pay journalists: the 160 full-time editors and reporters who make up the website's newsroom.

"However, we make a distinction between our newsroom staffers and our group bloggers, most of whom are not professional writers but come from all walks of life -- from officeholders, students and professionals to professors, entertainers, activists and heads of nonprofits," he said.

He said the citizen journalists, who cover campaigns and some other news events, are treated like bloggers with their stories placed in the left-hand column down the website's home page. Some are highlighted elsewhere on the page once in a while the same way that some bloggers are when the site wants to call attention to them.

"Bottom line," Mr. Ruiz said, "nearly all of our bloggers are happy with the arrangement and happy to access the platform and the huge audience it brings, without having to build, pay for, edit, moderate or maintain that platform.

"Indeed, we are inundated with requests from people who want to blog. The proof is in the pudding: people are looking to join the party, not go home early."

And that is where the problems for the unions come in.

Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America, which is the parent organization of The Newspaper Guild, said: "It's not a boycott, but [The Newspaper Guild] is asking that writers who contribute to [The Huffington Post] not do so at this time. That doesn't include organizations or people from an organization who are advocating for a particular cause."

The AFL-CIO had no comment on whether AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, would honor the virtual picket line or continue to write, unpaid, for the website. The federation of unions claims, on its website, to represent more than 12 million members ranging from miners and farm workers to engineers and public employees.

The United Steelworkers, based in Pittsburgh, also had no comment on whether its president, Leo Gerard, would continue to post his blog on the Huffington site.


Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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