- On Thursday, Mic laid off its entire editorial team ahead of an acquisition by Bustle Digital Group, which said it plans to relaunch the site in 2019.
- Elite Daily also laid off staff ahead of its acquisition by Bustle in 2017.
- Labor lawyers said laying off unionized staff before a sale, while legal, is a way for the acquirer to avoid recognizing the union.
On Thursday, millennial-aimed publisher Mic laid off most its 100-person staff ahead of its acquisition and relaunch plan by Bustle Digital Group. Mic cofounder and CEO Chris Altchek blamed Facebook’s cancelation of Mic’s “Dispatch” show on Facebook Watch for the company’s declining finances.
The revelation sparked “outrage” among former staff who saw the layoffs as an attempt by Mic and Bustle, which both tout progressive editorial missions, to break Mic’s editorial union, former employees said.
“It seems like it’s a pretty blatant way to keep the Mic brand while getting rid of the unionized members and also the members that hold the values that Mic has built their brand on,” one employee said. “For me, it’s hard to see how that’s not obvious union-busting.”
Here is the full email announcing that Bustle has acquired Mic pic.twitter.com/hOVuCQA936
— maxwell (@maxwellstrachan) November 29, 2018
Shirley Lung, an expert in labor law at the City University of New York, said laying off staff ahead of being acquired or reopening is a way for companies to get rid of unions.
“If the majority of Bustle’s new employees consist of Mic’s employees, they could have a duty to recognize the union and be able to bargain with them,” she said. “If Bustle decided that it would hire new employees and they’re going to structure their workforce so that less than a majority is comprised of former employees, then they would have effectively gotten rid of the union.”
Chaumtoli Huq, who teaches labor law at the City University of New York and is editor-in-chief of social justice publication Law At The Margins, said the practice could be legal unless there is other evidence of “anti-union animus.”
Bustle’s history with acquisitions
Bustle built its brand on producing highly searchable content produced by writers that were paid as little as $100 per day. Some noted similarities between the Mic situation and what happened when Bustle acquired lifestyle site Elite Daily in 2017.
Elite Daily laid off 47 of 94 staffers ahead of the sale. Bustle offered some jobs as contract employees with less pay and no benefits, according to former employees. Editors were demoted while reporters with no management experience were promoted to editor positions with no pay increases, the former employees said. Ex-Elite Daily employee Anna Menta tweeted: “I’d keep an eye on what kind of ‘rebuilding’ goes on here.”
I was fired from my full-time, salaried job when Bustle bought Elite Daily, then hired back as part-time, hourly, with no benefits. Other part-time writers were hired at much lower rates than former staff who was fired. I'd keep an eye on what kind of "rebuilding" goes on here. https://t.co/EOU94XLgYr
— Anna Menta (@annalikestweets) November 30, 2018
In a statement, Bustle told Business Insider, “Following the acquisition of Mic, Bustle Digital Group will take a thoughtful approach on the company’s future plans. We have no further comment.”
What’s next for former Mic employees
In February, Mic employees announced they planned to join the NewsGuild of New York, joining other digital newsrooms that have unionized in recent years. Mic recognized the union in March, but a union contract hadn’t been secured by Thursday’s layoffs.
Mic leadership told laid-off staff they would be given one month’s severance and that their health insurance would continue through December but that because Mic’s insurance contracts are terminating after that, COBRA will not be available for purchase.
In a statement Thursday, the union accused Mic’s cofounders of “deception” and indicated its willingness “to fight for what is right and just” and continue “to pursue all options available to us.”
Lung said that without a contract, Mic has little legal accountability to the union members. Huq and Lung said the employees could still seek unfair labor practice charges, claiming Mic violated its duty to bargain with them.
“Under the law, Mic had an obligation to make an effort to arrive at a contract – Mic and Bustle’s layoffs could be seen as an anti-union effort in retaliation for that,” Huq said.
“The power that workers have is the power that they create through demands and through collective organizing; it doesn’t rest on them having a contract,” Lung said.