Business

What Spotify Ratifying Ringer & Gimlet Unions Means for Music's Labor Movement

Spotify
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"This is not just a significant victory, it's also an innovative victory," says Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner.

Spotify may have quickly ratified contracts with its employees' labor unions because, emerging from the pandemic in coming months, the music-streaming giant has "opportunities to make money quickly right now," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University's director of labor research. "It would not be a good time to be stalled by delays or fights within the industry."

The two unions, representing a total of 115 employees at Spotify-owned Gimlet Media and The Ringer, ratified the contracts Wednesday. In addition to establishing minimum annual base salaries ($57,000 at The Ringer, which covers sports and pop culture via websites and podcasts, and $73,000 at Gimlet, which produces podcasts), the contracts provide funding for diversity committees and representation for LGBTQ workers and other under-represented groups.

"This is not just a significant victory, it's also an innovative victory," Bronfenbrenner says. "There's language that prioritizes those that needed it the most. They're fighting for the lowest-paid workers, workers of color and LGBTQ workers."

In recent years, unions have struggled to gain traction at Big Tech companies: Amazon warehouse workers lost an election Friday (April 9) to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; Google workers formed the Alphabet Union in January, but it has only 700 members in a company of 130,000 employees. And although music workers aren’t specifically impacted by the Spotify ratifications, the streaming service’s action is the latest in recent small but positive signs for labor movements after indie record label Secretly Group quickly recognized its new employees' union on March 25.

Broader unionization at large tech companies is unlikely to expand beyond Spotify, says Gordon Lafer, a University of Oregon professor who specializes in labor studies: "It's partly because there is vicious pushback by the companies. And it's partly because it's a competitive industry and people are scared of not only being fired but not getting jobs in Silicon Valley or Seattle." Spotify was an unusual case, perhaps because it's based in Sweden, which is relatively union-friendly, but also because The Ringer and Gimlet employees work in podcasting and had large platforms to rally public support. "If you're going to threaten the job of a warehouse worker, nobody will know," he says.

Employees at Gimlet and The Ringer didn't win on every point -- management insisted on retaining writers' work on websites, podcasts and other outlets. But that suggests the companies and unions were open to compromise, says Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, possibly because the podcast, tech and music industries attract like-minded managers and employees focused on "creation and entrepreneurialism and creativity."

"Unless you're going to be overly adversarial, you're going to end up with a contract. Why drag it out?" he asks. "It makes sense to get to it."

Bronfenbrenner adds that the recent victories at Secretly and Spotify, along with President Biden's general pro-union stance, are helpful for the wider labor movement. "We're seeing a ripple effect across the country," she says. "Workers see that unions are possible. They're going to be inspired by the fact that workers at Spotify, who are like them, are able to organize."