• Donny Willis

What Does Spotify's Approval of Ringer & Gimlet Unions Mean for the Music Industry's Labor Movement?

According to Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University's director of labor studies, Spotify may have easily approved contracts with its employees' labor unions because, after the pandemic has passed, the music-streaming giant will have "opportunities to make money quickly right now." "It will not be a reasonable time for the industry to be stymied by delays or battles."

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

Bronfenbrenner says, "This is not only a big victory; it's also an imaginative victory." "There is terminology in place that prioritizes those who need assistance the most. They are fighting for low-wage jobs, people of color, and LGBTQ people."

Unions have failed to gain momentum at Big Tech firms in recent years: Amazon warehouse staff lost an election to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union on Friday (April 9); Google employees founded the Alphabet Union in January, but it only has 700 members in a business with 130,000 employees. While music workers aren't directly affected by the Spotify ratifications, the streaming service's intervention is the latest in a string of small but encouraging signals for labor movements, following the March 25 recognition of independent record label Secretly Group's new employees' union.

According to Gordon Lafer, a labor studies professor at the University of Oregon, broader unionization at major tech firms is unlikely to spread beyond Spotify: "It's partly due to the companies' vehement opposition. It's partially due to the fact that it's a tough industry, and people are afraid of not only being shot, but also of not being able to find work in Silicon Valley or Seattle." Spotify was an outlier, not just because it's based in Sweden, which is union-friendly, but also because workers at The Ringer and Gimlet work in podcasting and have wide outlets to rally public support. "No one will know if you threaten the job of a warehouse worker," he says.

Management insisted on keeping writers' work on blogs, podcasts, and other sources, so Gimlet and The Ringer employees didn't win on every stage. However, according to Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, this indicates that businesses and unions were willing to negotiate, likely because the podcast, tech, and music industries attract like-minded managers and workers who value "creativity, entrepreneurialism, and creativity."

"You're going to end up with a deal unless you're going to be overly adversarial. Why are you dragging this out?" he inquires. "It's only natural to get started."

Bronfenbrenner goes on to say that the recent wins at Secretly and Spotify, as well as President Biden's pro-labor position in general, are beneficial to the labor movement as a whole. "Across the world, we're seeing a ripple effect," she says. "Workers are beginning to realize that unionization is a viable option. They'll be motivated by the ability of Spotify employees, who are similar to them, to coordinate."