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YouTubers are unionizing — kind of.
The YouTubers Union is led by Berlin-based YouTuber Jörg Sprave, whose slingshot-focused channel has more than 2 million subscribers, and recently announced a partnership with IG Metall, the largest trade union in the EU. IG Metall was originally a metalworkers union based in Germany but has expanded to cover other industries. In the past several years, it’s taken on more white-collar workers in engineering and IT management.
The YouTubers Union will not be a real union under the IG Metall umbrella, and they have no intention of holding an election or bargaining with YouTube to establish a contract. In effect, they’re running a public pressure campaign with the help, now, of a powerful political body.
This week, they launched what Sprave is calling an “internet movement,” named FairTube. The 18,000 members of the YouTubers Union are collectively protesting changes to YouTube’s advertising rules, which date back to the spring of 2017 and are colloquially known as the “Adpocalypse.” (So far, no major YouTube stars have publicly endorsed FairTube — likely, at least in part, because FairTube is protesting what it considers special treatment for big moneymakers.)
At the time, YouTube gave advertisers more control over what content their ads appeared next to, and rolled out “brand safety” features that YouTubers like Sprave have railed against ever since. Their argument, essentially, is that YouTube has become a sanitized media company, prioritizing brand deals with big celebrities at the expense of allowing independent creators a fair shot at making a living. (Though, as Edward Ongweso Jr. pointed out for Vice, this type of inequality existed on the platform before the advertising changes, and the top 3 percent of YouTubers were already getting close to 90 percent of site traffic.)
FairTube’s demands are published on its website. Participants are asking YouTube to make public all “decision criteria that affect monetization and views of videos,” to give “clear explanations” whenever a video is demonetized (i.e., prohibited from running ads due to a community or content guideline violation), to provide the YouTubers Union with a contact point within the company, allow YouTubers to contest demonetization decisions, create an independent mediation board, and allow YouTubers “formal participation” in important company decisions, “for example through a YouTuber Advisory Board.”
According to YouTube, the company has been taking steps to improve transparency and communication for the past two years, most notably by implementing a “strike” system with more consistent penalties for policy violations. YouTube also says it asks for creator feedback when launching new features and products.
A YouTube spokesperson provided Vox with this statement:
Sprave tells me the group is also alleging that YouTube regularly violates the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation law. (In January, Google paid a $57 million fine to the EU for not properly disclosing its data collection practices to users.) His argument is that by sorting and tagging YouTubers’ videos in ways the creators can’t see or understand, the company is violating the GDPR’s directive not to generate data about users without telling them.
“Legally, you can approach any company like Facebook and Google and ask them to tell you what they’ve done to your data,” Sprave says. “YouTube is clearly adding a lot of stuff to our data … but YouTube isn’t telling us. We have to guess. And that absolutely is a violation of the data protection law. If they don’t open up and be transparent about what they do to our videos, then the EU will slap a huge fine on them. We’re convinced about that.” (YouTube did not comment on this specific claim.)
Sprave is also optimistic about the US Federal Trade Commission’s pending investigation into possible antitrust violations at big tech companies, including YouTube’s parent company, Google.
Strange as it may sound, this looks a lot like the effort to unionize Instagram meme accounts, announced in April. That group, which goes by IG Meme Union Local 69-420, also has no plans to create a traditional union. As Rebecca Jennings reported for Vox at the time, “The organizing drive is still very real: Not only does it use traditional union organizing tactics, but the memers have concrete demands they want Instagram to agree to. And with growing membership, they’ll likely have a bit of leverage.”
Much like the YouTubers Union, this group is primarily interested in transparency from the platform their livelihoods or creative work depend on. Adryn Alvarez, a representative from the Instagram union’s organizing committee, told Vox that the union hoped to put a stop to what it considered random censorship of posts or full accounts, and to prevent huge meme accounts with millions of followers (and lucrative brand deals) from stealing content from smaller pages.
As digital media companies brace for change, unions try to cushion the blow
“Compare it to the early days of the Industrial Revolution where factory workers had no rights, so therefore they had to work 14 hours, seven days a week,” Sprave says. “If someone complained, they’d say, ‘There’s three people who want your job, so if you no longer want it, there’s the door.’ That’s very much the situation that we now have at YouTube, but also at Facebook and Twitter and so on. All of these companies, in a way, work the same way. They don’t have to take care of the people who work for them.”
Sprave isn’t exactly confident that YouTube will recognize the unofficial union, and says it’s possible the company will just try to sit the whole thing out. He believes, though, that the demands are fair, and that they don’t have anything to do with the company’s bottom line. “We recognize that YouTube owns the platform and can decide what kind of content they want and what kind they do not want,” he says. “If they don’t want pornography, it’s their right to exclude it. If they don’t want hate speech, it’s their right to exclude it. The only thing we demand is that these rules are clear and also equally enforced.”
But the fact that FairTube is “an internet movement” and not a real union brings up some questions about power within the group. Sprave says there are only a few administrators helping him run the website and Facebook group, but otherwise, he is the primary organizer and sole spokesperson. Asked if it might make sense to establish a committee to represent the diverse interests of YouTube’s enormous community, he first tells me that might happen, after YouTube recognizes the union, then pivots to no: “It would be really dangerous to make it really democratic,” as there are just too many disparate concerns.
Leftist memes are everywhere on Instagram. Now their creators are unionizing.
This spring, Jennings also situated the Instagram meme union in a larger trend of white-collar professions seeking the protection of collective bargaining. “Workers in professional and technical occupations — teachers, hospital staff, government employees, and media folks, for example — currently have higher rates of union membership than at any other point in history,” she wrote. “In 2018, 6.18 million professional workers were in unions, capping a decade-long upward trend in professional union membership.” Millennials and Gen Z workers are also more likely to join unions than Gen X or boomer workers are, she added, citing the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Internet workers have been unionizing rapidly over the past several years, including, most recently, the staffs at Kickstarter and at BuzzFeed News. (Vox Media also signed its first union contract this summer.)
“One of the things we need to do is make people understand how these new jobs work,” Sprave says. “The job of a YouTuber, a lot of young people think it’s a dream job, they think it’s the best thing in the world, you’ve got nothing to do and you live like a rock star. You step in front of a camera an hour a day and then you get millions. Not the truth. It’s very hard work and really risky and also exhausting. We need to tell the world what kind of a job it really is, so they see why we have the need to have a union.”
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