Dave “El Presidente” Portnoy, founder of media company Barstool Sports, really, really hates unions. Now he’s made explicit threats to fire employees who engage in union-organizing activity — a violation of federal labor laws.
Portnoy, who sold majority control of Barstool to Peter Chernin’s Chernin Group in 2016, has a history of unapologetically attacking critics and rivals. Clearly, union organizers belong on his hit-list.
On Monday, he tweeted that he had heard employees of Bill Simmons’ The Ringer wanted to unionize, and included a link to his four-year-old rant on Barstool in the wake of Gawker writers unionizing about how he hoped his company’s employees would follow suit “just so I can smash their little union to smithereens.”
That elicited a reply from Live Science staff writer Rafi Letzter, who offered to provide Barstool workers info on the unionization process and explain “how little power your boss has to stop you.” Live Science’s staff is represented by the Writers Guild of America East.
On Tuesday, Portnoy said he would fire anyone who attempted to contact Letzter. In response to another commenter, who claimed to be a lawyer offering pro-bono assistance to pro-union Barstool employees, Portnoy wrote, “Anybody who hires this lawyer will be fired immediately and I will personally sue you for damages and back wages.”
According to the National Labor Relations Board, it is unlawful for employers to discourage (or encourage, for that matter) union activities or sympathies “by discrimination in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment.” For example, the NLRB says, companies are prohibited from laying off or disciplining employees because they are pro-union.
Reps for Barstool Sports and Chernin Group did not respond to requests for comment.
Portnoy was informed on Twitter that his comments violated U.S. labor laws; he retweeted several that pointed it out. In response to one commenter who expressed hope that Barstool employees will form a union, Portnoy said, “Me too. Just so I can crush it and reassert my dominance.”
A few Barstool employees took Portnoy’s union-busting threats and played them for comedy. Barstool writer and podcast host Kate Mannion posted a story on the site Monday facetiously claiming she was organizing a union at the company and included a list of mock demands, like “small, decorative tree in the ladies bathroom for ambiance, along with a couple shelves for our toiletries/curling irons/straighteners.”
Barstool’s employment contracts have required staffers to affirm they will not object to “offensive speech,” including conduct and speech that “openly and explicitly relates to sex, as well as race, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, religion, disability and age.” When the employment contract came to light two years ago, Barstool CEO Erika Nardini defended the policy, saying that “Barstool creates really unique comedy and the nature of that comedy means that we can sometimes easily offend,” and she said the contract was so that everyone who works at the company is “comfortable.”
In the digital-media sector, the WGA East began organizing union representation in 2015 with the now-defunct Gawker Media. The Guild now represents staffs at publications that include Vox Media — which clinched a three-year contract with the company in June after a marathon negotiating session — as well as Fast Company, Talking Points Memo, ThinkProgress, HuffPost, The Intercept, Vice, Salon, Slate, CBSN, Refinery29, Thrillist, The Dodo and G/O Media (the former Gizmodo Media Group).
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