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Media Meltdowns

Bill Simmons Is Union-Busting

Bill Simmons sits in an armchair looking like an asshole
Mike Windle/Getty Images

The juicy stuff is the unfollowing. What a fucking baby Bill Simmons is!

Ringer employees say Mr. Simmons showed signs of trying to marginalize the union dating back to when it was formed last year. Kate Knibbs, a staff writer who left for Wired in December, said that Mr. Simmons unfollowed her on Twitter after she indicated her support for the union and that he stopped promoting her work on Twitter. Three other Ringer employees at the time, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, said Mr. Simmons unfollowed them after they expressed support for the union as well.

That’s from the Times‘ report today about the Ringer: about the recent spate of relatively high-profile departures there—Jason Concepcion and Haley O’Shaughnessy, among others—and about the simmering labor tensions those departures perhaps reflect. Unfollowing his employees on Twitter when they do tweets in support of their unionizing effort is just the pettiest of shit, hilariously of a piece with Simmons’s famously tissue-thin skin. I could read about this type of stuff all day.

But don’t let the spicy media soap-opera shit distract you from less exciting but much more meaningful forms of malevolence (emphasis added):

Around the same time [as he was unfollowing Ringer staffers for supporting their new union], Mr. Simmons hired Ryen Russillo, a former ESPN colleague, to host a podcast. The union sought to include Mr. Russillo but management resisted, and the union eventually agreed to leave him out. Since that dispute, high-profile podcast hosts have joined The Ringer as contractors, who are ineligible to become union members, rather than as employees.

Some context: The Ringer’s staff unionized in August of 2019; negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement have been in a prolonged stall since not long after that. Spotify, the music streaming and podcasting giant, bought the Ringer for something in the neighborhood of $200 million back toward the beginning of this year, keeping Simmons on as an executive and raising fears about the future of the site’s writing staff. Since then, the site has bled writers and editors at a regular if slow pace, while beefing up the podcasting side of the operation with high-profile names brought on as contractors in non-union positions.

Switching to a reliance on contractors during a union drive or during stalled collective bargaining is union-busting; it is not even a novel form of union-busting. It is just normal union-busting.

There is not a lot to this. Bringing in celebrities and big-name athletes to do podcasts for the Ringer is clearly beneficial to the company, and just as clearly within Simmons’s rights as the boss. But the case for bringing them aboard—they’re famous and interesting, and all but certain to attract lucrative audiences just on reputation alone, and therefore of great value to the company—is also a case for hiring them as actual staff members. Unless you are specifically trying to withhold their membership from the union. A Ringer union that includes the Ringer’s highest-profile workers is much stronger than a Ringer union that does not include them. That is the reason why the union pushed to have Russillo (and, by extension, the high-profile podcast hosts to follow) placed within the bargaining unit. It is for that same reason that Ringer management—Bill Simmons—resisted doing so.

This is all pretty straightforward! Shifting to a business model that relies more heavily on contracted, non-unionized workers who have a greater influence on the company’s bottom line has been a union-busting tactic used by corrupt managers since the invention of union-busting. Bill Simmons, who has been made preposterously wealthy by Spotify’s purchase of his company, who owns many millions of dollars worth of gaudy Southern California real estate, is working to break his employees’ union by reducing their leverage, so that the union cannot more effectively pressure the Ringer into making improvements to its working conditions. Meanwhile, popular and successful staffers are leaving the company, in some cases without much of anything lined up, amid perhaps the worst environment for media employment in living memory. Seems pretty shitty.