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Autocracy at Work: Understanding the Gothamist Shut Down


Sharon Block (@sharblock) is is the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. 

Benjamin Sachs (@bsachs) is the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School.

Last week, billionaire Joe Ricketts abruptly shut down the local news websites Gothamist and DNAinfo.  The closure came a week after the sites’ newsroom employees voted to join Writers Guild East, a union that is the collective bargaining representative for reporters and editorial staff in a rapidly growing number of progressive, on-line media outlets.  Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer for Splinter and a lead organizer for the Writers Guild, made a compelling case in a New York Times op-ed that Ricketts did not shutter the company because of what the union would mean for the sites’ economic prospects. After all, the union hadn’t yet made a single demand. Instead, in Nolan’s words, Ricketts destroyed the company “out of spite.”


But why do unions infuriate people like Joe Ricketts? Why would Ricketts prefer having no business at all than a unionized business? The answer, we think, is suggested by something Ricketts said during the union’s organizing drive: “As long as it’s my money that’s paying for everything, I intend to be the one making the decisions about the direction of the business.” In other words, Ricketts expects that his financial power buys him the right not just to own a business, but to control his business’ workforce unburdened by the voices and views of that workforce

Unionization is, and always has been, the most effective way that working people can wrest a bit of control back from owners like Ricketts. It operates through the simple logic of collective action: by bargaining together, people increase their leverage and gain a voice in shaping what their work lives are like. Unions move workplaces away from institutions governed autocratically – by those with the ‘money that pays for everything’ – and toward institutions that are governed democratically, by including the insights and opinions of those who do the work.

That Ricketts can simply shut down Gothamist and DNAinfo in order to avoid sharing any control with his workforce is a troubling reminder of how wildly out of whack the balance of power has become in our country. How normalized workplace autocracy has become and how we have lost sight of the goal of workplace democracy that used to form a centerpiece of our vision for socio-economic progress. And the sad fact is Ricketts can – at least as a legal matter – shut down the sites to express his resentment over losing control. That’s thanks to a labor law regime that makes it illegal to threaten to close a company, but allows owners the freedom actually to do it.

Ricketts’ action grabs our attention because he was so transparent about his motive and ruthless in his means of making his point. The wielding of such control has been abetted by the relentless weakening of the law and the failure to update it to address today’s challenges.  Such abuses of power are now commonplace across much of the economy. When meat packers at Wal-Mart formed a union, Wal-Mart responded by getting rid of meat packing operations. When workers demand improved conditions by going on strike, they find themselves “permanently replaced” – under a ludicrous Supreme Court doctrine that distinguishes between getting fired (not allowed) and getting permanently replaced (permissible).  About one in five workers with the temerity to lead a union drive is fired, with their offending bosses subject only penalties easily absorbed as the cost of doing business. When immigrant workers try to unionize, they can face not only discharge but deportation.

So, Rickett’s exercise of economic power over the Gothamist and DNAinfo writers is as troubling as it is commonplace. Both of these outlets provided important news to local communities, and their closure is a loss to the communities they served.  But the bigger story told by their closure is the loss of fundamental fairness in our economy, and the ascendancy of workplace autocracy. The hope is these closings serve as a wake-up call that, because of their brazenness, puts in stark relief just how out-of-balance both workplace relations, and the law governing them, have become. The promise of economic democracy needs serious attention and resuscitation.

This post originally appeared at OnLabor.