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Data: Axios research; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Dozens of media companies have unionized over the past 2 years in an effort to weather the turbulent economic environment for the content industry. Meanwhile, Hollywood writers are fight waging war with talent agents who, writers claim, are taking an unfair cut of their profits.

Why it matters: Content creators have become collateral damage in a power struggle between the media industry and technology-driven business disruptions. Now, the talent is trying to fight back. 

“In recent years content creators have turned to collective bargaining to ensure that they can build sustainable careers even as particular digital media companies contend with tricky business conditions. While some companies have turned to mergers and acquisitions to build scale, all companies face the challenges posed by big tech companies that siphon off advertising revenue. "
— Lowell Peterson, executive director, Writers Guild of America, East
  • Several digital companies unionized earlier. For example, Gawker Media’s employees voted to unionize in 2015, which opened the door for several other digital outlets to do the same like Vice Media and HuffPost.

Between the lines: The unionizing spree has extended to companies that represent creators. For example, podcast company Gimlet Media Group announced that a majority of employees signed union cards in March.

  • How it works: Unions typically give employees at companies more bargaining leverage during times of transition, whether that be during mass contract negotiations or layoffs. Newsrooms typically renew terms with their union every 2 or 3 years. National union organizations include the NewsGuild of New York and the Writers Guild of America, East and West.
  • Yes, but: Union representation doesn't always result in full employee protection, and representation does not mean all newsrooms have 100% unionized workers. Most outlets reported a majority of eligible employees signed union authorization cards.

The other coast: Hollywood is experiencing a similar talent uprising. After failing to reach an agreement over the weekend, the Writers Guild agreed to extend to Friday the deadline to renegotiate a decades-old agreement with Hollywood talent agencies.

  • If the Association of Talent Agents and the Writers Guild don't resolve the dispute, the Guild says that it will implement a new "code of conduct" that would allow members to fire their agents.
  • The heart of the dispute centers around the Guild's assertion that Hollywood's biggest talent agencies, like ICM, WME, CAA and UTA, are undercutting the writers they represent by moving from a long-standing percentage cut model to a model focused around packaging fees and production.
  • Many of these agencies have transitioned from strictly representing talent to becoming more involved in media production and distribution.

The bottom line: The media industry is facing unprecedented disruption, which is forcing the employment dynamics to change from decades-old precedents. Those transitions will come with pain points.

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