The Center for American Progress, one of the country’s leading progressive think-tanks, was caught in an apparent union-busting scandal after conflicting announcements on whether their news publication ThinkProgress was going to be shut down, relaunched or archived. This was just days after firing nearly a dozen unionised writers who have since sought “legal options” against the site’s owners over their plans to replace the editorial team with exploitable labour.
On Friday, the CAP originally decided to shutdown ThinkProgress upon failing to find a buyer for the site, leaving workers in a state of confusion as to their employment, whether they’d receive their 12 weeks of dismissal compensation, secured health insurance, archives to their own work for future hiring purposes and an end to worker-subscription dues. In a statement from Navin Nayak, the executive director for the CAP’s Action Fund tasked with overseeing the site, it was announced three days later that ThinkProgress would be “transitioning… back to its roots” with a focus on “analysis of the news, policy, and politics” from the think-tank itself.
At the time, there was no timetable given for when the transition will be completed, how it would be staffed and whether it would involve the previously fired union members. Nayak simply stated he was “grateful to all the editors and journalists who poured their hearts into making ThinkProgress a resource for millions of Americans,” saying the site will be folded “back into CAP’s broader online presence” for their original think-tank staff, according to an initial report from The Daily Beast. Effectively, the only variables were the termination of their independently unionised staff and how the CAP would be covering the news.
When the Beast’s follow-up article contacted the ThinkProgress Union (TPU) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA), it was revealed they began seeking “legal options” to have their questions answered. In a tweet from the Union, it was revealed the CAP did agree to obligations on severance pay and healthcare coverage throughout the year, though issues on using a skeleton crew directly controlled within the CAP persisted. While this may appear like a regular transitional practice for a crumbling website, the writers established in their own union contracts that editorial independence from the CAP would be upheld, suggesting a potential breach of contract in kneecapping their staff’s employment, contributions and free expression, only to later turn the site back over to the CAP’s editorial control under a scab labour force.
“We were blindsided by the revelation that CAP intends to continue operating the ThinkProgress site with its own labour, and use the ThinkProgress social media accounts to promote that work,” the statement reads. “Our editorially independent, unionized labour powered the impactful journalism at ThinkProgress. To take away our independent voice and use the wide audience built by the ThinkProgress union staff is an affront to the ThinkProgress mission. We ask that CAP management keep ThinkProgress alive as an archived site, but not co-opt the site for its own.” Given how the site’s independence allowed for workers to be principled “crazy leftists,” as described by CAP President Neera Tanden in a leaked 2015 email, it’s safe to say the takeover plans stunk of a potential corporate bias, which is especially ironic as the CAP advocates for policies working for the rights of unions.
But the shenanigans don’t stop there. It was later found out that the website was also continuing to charge money despite producing zero content for over a month, forcing people to email the CAP to opt-out of their recurring payments despite internal conflicts on whether to merge, shutdown or archive. ThinkProgress and CAP were in a public stage of limbo, and there were higher priorities than answering those emails. In fact, ignorance was within their financial incentive.“ThinkProgress was not founded to be profitable,” the Unions told Yahoo News. “We now know this was never about money. This was always about power and control.” After the WGA’s statement was given to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for CAP finally confirmed the site would be archived and payments would cease, though no mention of refunds was made.
It wasn’t until a few days later, the CAP Action Fund reversed the relaunch decision entirely while still defending their original position to breach contract was a “better alternative” to just abandoning the site entirely. “At that point, we were faced with a choice between shelving the site altogether or finding some productive value in using it with existing staff to hold the current corrupt occupant of the White House accountable,” the CAP Action Fund said in their official statement. “We felt that opting for the latter was the greater good, given the existential crisis our nation faces and communicated that to staff and in public statements on Friday. However, it is clear that many former ThinkProgress staff feel that the site should simply be archived with no further posting, and we will honour that request, and end the membership program immediately.”
The announcement also went into the CAP’s tales of woe about the ever-growing ‘economic anxiety’ in the progressive ecosphere, detailing how the ThinkProgress budget deficit had “expanded from $700,000 to $2,500,000” despite only having 11 staffers on the site, whereas the CAP produced over $40 and $50 million in annual gains from 2013 to 2016. It makes you wonder whether independence in writing also meant independence in their business. “In just the last eight years, CAP made an investment of over $11 million in TP because of its important work,” the announcement continued. “However, over several months we worked to find a new publisher, and unfortunately we found no one willing to take on TP.”
But does this financial context justify stringing along their workers? Proposals to breach their contract and seize the website under corporate control? Abandon the CAP’s values on supporting union work and progressive journalism? Making them fear their work will just randomly disappear overnight without a trace? Only to have the brand they build used to prop-up the ones who took their jobs away despite those million-dollar gains? Performative progressives like Tanden have made a name for themselves in talking out of both sides of their mouth. To reuse a phrase from her beloved candidate Elizabeth Warren, someone like Neera Tanden should not be allowed to sell out unions in the morning and be heralded as their friend in the evening. And when it comes to walking the walk, the CAP and their executives continue to stumble at the critical moment.
This form of labour hypocrisy isn’t new. In the past, publications I’ve written for have covered progressive presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders who was recently accused of underpaying campaign staff and forcing them to choose higher wages or good healthcare, all the while running on a moralistic platform of both a $15 living wage and Medicare For All. At the time, people considered the story mute because the underpayments were later reversed their practice, forcing the campaign to reach a reformed wage agreement with their staff — missing the point that it required collective bargaining and media pressure to actually get a moralist like Sanders in the first place! Moral failures are not just bipartisan, they’re human corruptions everyone acting in self-interest (or should I say selfish-interest) exploits.
Progressives are no exceptions, hence why to enforce these rights, unions must have force — a position of strength. Executives for the CAP are no different in this regard, willing to give way to labour exploitation when the critical moment of management arrives, only to reach fairness after the scrutiny squad comes knocking. “If there’s any lesson to be gleaned from this,” concluded Splinter journalist Paul Blest, “it’s that liberal think tanks like the Center for American Progress are not a friend to media workers or workers in general… The fact is that these people, as they have proven time and again, will never really be on the same ‘team’ as workers. If CAP is the best that liberals can do when it comes to creating moral and principled institutions to further the progressive movement, it’s worth asking: With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
Thanks for reading! This article was originally published for TrigTent.com, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary, truly diverse viewpoints and facts that don’t kowtow to political correctness.
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