Exploring Democracy in Unions: Hamilton Nolan on Joe Biden, Gawker, and the Influence of Labor

“Unions Are Laboratories of Democracy”: Hamilton Nolan on Joe Biden, Gawker, and the Power of Labor

In the summer of 2015, Gawker, an online news platform renowned for its candid reporting and playful approach, made headlines by becoming the first major digital media company to opt for unionization.

This move defied a prevailing belief that young journalists were disinterested in unions and sparked a surge of labor activism within digital media circles. At the forefront of Gawker’s unionization efforts stood journalist Hamilton Nolan, who, having joined the site during the Great Recession, emerged as its de facto labor correspondent.

Reflecting on the experience, Nolan sheds light on the disparities within the workplace in his latest book, “The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor.”

He recalls, “We had a lavish roof deck at the office, but no system of getting regular raises; big parties with open bars, but no functional system of internal communication; a pancake machine in the kitchen, but no severance pay. All major company decisions were made inside the mysterious mind of the owner. He smoked a lot of weed.”

Joe Biden
Joe Biden (Credits: In These Times)

Gawker Media’s unionization victory, however, was short-lived as the company filed for bankruptcy shortly after due to a $140 million legal judgment resulting from a defamation lawsuit funded by Peter Thiel, filed by former wrestler Hulk Hogan.

Although the site was resurrected in 2021, it was closed once again the following year. Nevertheless, the experience left a lasting impact on Nolan, who continued his advocacy for labor rights at The Guardian and In These Times, a progressive magazine based in Chicago. “My immersion into unions felt like finally grasping the right tool after rummaging around in a toolbox for years,” Nolan writes.

Released this week, “The Hammer” arrives at a time of heightened public interest in organized labor despite a continued decline in union membership among American workers.

It serves as both a tribute to the potential of workplace organizing and a critical examination of the inadequacies within mainstream labor organizations, which Nolan argues have failed to adapt to the current landscape.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Nolan discusses President Joe Biden’s stance on unions and why he believes the fate of the labor movement is “absolutely central to the success or failure of the American experiment.”

Hamilton Nolan reflects on his journey into activism, stating, “I grew up with activist-type parents, went into journalism, and started working at Gawker, where I was writing a lot about labor, inequality, and class war.”

He recalls how, initially, suggestions for unionization were met with skepticism until he engaged with an organizer in 2015, leading to the successful unionization effort. This experience ignited his passion for labor rights and highlighted the gap between the potential of unions and their actual implementation.

Hamilton Nolan
Hamilton Nolan (Credits: In These Times)

He remarks, “For a lot of people who’ve gone through the process of organizing their workplace, you get such a burst of energy and excitement about the potential of unions, and then you look around society, and you’re like, Why doesn’t everybody have this? That was the seed of what grew into this book.”

Despite the recent surge in high-profile strikes across various industries and a notable increase in public support for labor unions, Nolan emphasizes that the decline in union membership persists. He notes, “The most important measurement of the strength of unions in America is union density, which just means the percentage of workers who are union members. And that measurement has been declining since the 1950s.”

Despite Biden’s self-proclaimed status as the most pro-union president in U.S. history, Nolan believes there’s still much to be desired in his administration’s record on labor. While praising certain appointments, particularly at the National Labor Relations Board, he acknowledges Biden’s shortcomings, including his handling of the railroad strike.

Nolan reserves strong criticism for the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S., describing it as a “mediocre in-house lobbying firm and traffic cop for America’s unions.”

He elaborates on his disappointment, emphasizing the organization’s failure to effectively empower workers and foster a revival of the labor movement. He advocates for a more ambitious approach, emphasizing the need for significant investments in new organizing efforts.

Drawing inspiration from successful models such as the culinary union in Las Vegas, Nolan highlights the importance of rigorous organizing, consistent engagement with members, and a willingness to strike when necessary.

Nolan contends that the success of unions is integral to the success of American democracy. He argues, “Building worker power is, in my mind, the single most effective tool to fix the single biggest problem in America.”

He believes that unions, as democratic institutions, provide individuals with a tangible experience of democracy in their personal lives, contributing to a healthier and more equitable society.

Reflecting on the transformative potential of the labor movement, Nolan emphasizes the need for concerted efforts to revitalize and expand union membership, viewing it as essential for the future of American democracy and social progress.

Hey, I'm Sharon Mittal . Writing has always been my hobby. I write articles on Asian entertainment, especially Kpop and Kdramas. Besides that, I also write about dating kinds of stuff and gossip.