This was only a matter of time, right?
Mike Elk, a Politico labor reporter, is trying to organize a union at the suburban Virginia publication. And so far, he insists he’s not facing much opposition from within. Wait… does this mean Politico reporters would have rights?
In a lengthy phone interview with The Mirror Monday, Elk explained the nuts and bolts of the endeavor.
He says he planned to do this all along. “From the outset I had a plan,” he said. “It’s all very planned and very calculated. It’s called salting.”
What’s more, Elk told me that talking to me was completely protected by the union ties he already has — he’s still an associate member of the Newspaper Guild and he says that offers him certain legal protections like having an interview with me without fear of repercussions.
So here’s how it all went down. Just before December, he announced his plan to form a union at Politico and began talking to Human Relations Director Joanne Ochsman. He says management and HR have been really amenable with him about the prospect of a union. “Basically she made it pretty clear that nobody was going to get fired in a union drive,” he said.
With Politico expanding to Europe, and the publication insisting internally that the European outlet will be the largest online European presence by the end of the year, Elk felt it was the perfect time to pounce with his plan.
Elk sought advice from his union friends in Germany. “My friends made it clear that Politico can’t do union busting in Rosslyn, that those unions over there won’t tolerate it,” he said.
So far, reaction at Politico is mixed.
“People are openly talking about it on the newsroom floor,” he said. “Some people are saying they are for it, some are against it. Nobody in management is telling people how to vote. Maybe they’re saying things behind the scenes.”
How it works is as follows: You petition the National Labor Relations Board with signatures from 33 percent of the employees. If Elk achieves this, they come and conduct an election. His job is to convince colleagues this would be a good idea.
“The thing people don’t realize is that the veteran reporters come from somewhere else, from Reuters, which has a very good union,” he said. “A lot of people have already had experiences that were positive.”
But Elk says he knows he’s not the right person to lead the Politico union if it happens. “I don’t intend to lead the union,” he said. “I’m a good enough labor reporter to know that I’m not a very good union leader.”
And even if a union doesn’t happen, 20-30 percent of signatures could allow them to form a minority union.
He’s also been in cahoots with WaPo columnist Clinton Yates on the subject of working side-by-side with WaPo‘s union. “Politico and WaPo unions are going to work together,” he said.
But Yates dismissed any sense that they’d be working together on any sort of union alliances between Politico and WaPo. “I have no plans to work with him,” Yates told The Mirror.
One issue Elk sees as a concern so far at Politico is overtime: “Currently there is no overtime policy,” he said. “I set pretty clear boundaries. At first I felt some pressure to work extra. [I work] 10 to 6 and then I clock out.”
Asked if he ever works extra hours now, he replied, “I don’t, but I see a lot of the young kids working 60 to 70 hours a week, not actually having any fun ever. People feel the pressure to work more than 48 hours a week. I’ve had one source kill themselves, three had heart attacks. I’ve been dealing with these PTSD symptoms for years. I don’t work after 7 p.m. ever. That’s my own rule for mental health. It’s true at In These Times, it’s true at Politico.”
Elk feels a sense of duty to form a union at Politico. “It’s important to stand up and say hey, this is my federal right.”
He speaks highly of Politico‘s new editor Susan Glasser. “I really like Susan Glasser a lot,” he said, impressing upon me that he really wanted his comments about her included in this story. “She’s the skipper. She’s just the best.”
Elk stressed that his reasons for wanting to unionize have nothing to do with Glasser’s management. “It’s got nothing to do with that, and everything to do with the fact that I’m from four generations of unions in this country.”
Asked if he thinks he’ll get enough signatures, he said, “I think, without a doubt, we’ll get 33 percent. Management isn’t fighting it.”
Has anyone expressed annoyance with him doing this and potentially creating waves? “Couple people,” he replied. “At a certain point you have to lead and that is what I’ve tried to do all of my life. They could try to fire me for other random bullshit. Sometimes I have to get up and do what reporters do. Being the new guy on the block, having the protection [is important], plus the Pete Seeger song is just so good.” (At this point he starts singing on the phone.)
Before we hung up, Elk mentioned that he first tried to leak this story to one of Politico‘s newest hires, Jack Shafer, who covers the media. “I tried to first leak this to Jack Shafer but he didn’t have the guts to write it,” he said. “He said no.”
Previously a labor reporter for InTheseTimes, he often raised a ruckus on Twitter and by email. But he has been on his best behavior at Politico until now. He’s cleaned up his Twitter feed. He’s been keeping a relatively low profile.
A source in Politico‘s newsroom tells The Mirror that Elk sent an email to staff in December, inviting everyone to a bar he co-owns called “Marx Cafe.” (Named after, yep, you guessed it… Karl Marx.)
“Most people quietly deleted it and moved on,” the staffer said.
So a few years ago, I became a co-owner with a rather small equity stake in a bar – Marx Cafe. I was a broke labor reporter and it didn’t make much sense why Marx’s actual owner Harris Dalloz insisted that I become a nominal co owner in his bar. Harris keep saying to me “Mike, Marx Cafe is gonna be a labor reporter hangout bar” and I said “Harris this makes no sense, How is your business model based around the idea that labor reporters will hang out here? This is crazy Harris – labor reporters would need to exist for this to even make any sense”. To which, Harris, a great confidante on all matters of the heart, replied “Just trust me Mike, Mt. Pleasant Street is a place for labor reporters – labor reporters will come here”.
So technically speaking I co-own a bar (not a large part of the bar, but a part). Its kinda weird, but the great part is that when you get hired at publication that is like “we love labor reporters” and you are technically speaking a co-owner, while you can negotiate drink specials after the Christmas Party. So this Friday after the Christmas Party, there will be three dollar PBR’s at Marx Cafe from 9-11 and anybody with the last name “Noah” drinks for free. The kitchen is open till 11 and according to Marx Cafe’s marketing the cuisine is “revolutionary”.
After 11, they are going to clear out the tables and open up the dance floor. There are some hipster indie rock dj’s playing and it should be fun. Kaleigh Robinson is unfortunately out of town, but word on Mt. Pleasant Street is that Mary Sotos is gonna bring the extra Rust Belt Chic to the dance floor. It may or may not be a potluck – its unclear – its Mt. Pleasant so anything can quickly devolve into a potluck. Ida was invited and her cake packing skills are pretty epic.
You can get a quick cab ride up there from the Italian Embassy or do what Preston Rhea once dubbed in a folk song “the Mt. Pleasant Shuffle” and just take the 42 up whose last stop is right front of Marx. So come one, come all Marx Cafe Friday Night. Its gonna be epic!
Elk has even stopped publicly trashing Politico.
Here are a few of the doozies he said before working there: 1. “Somewhere there’s a dude who brags on OkCupid that he works for Politico.” 2. “Seriously, politico [sic] is gonna get a pay wall, I feel like u would have to pay me to read politico [sic].”