Commentary

Barstool Sports' Founder Ratchets Up Anti-Union Threats

Dave Portnoy, founder of sports blog Barstool Sports, set off a social-media firestorm after tweeting threats against employees who attempt to unionize.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., slammed the Twitter posts for “likely breaking the law,” while Donald Trump Jr., son of the U.S. president, tweeted support for Portnoy.

The dust-up started Monday, after Portnoy posted a tweet to his 970,000 followers about a recent unionization effort at The Ringer, a rival sports and culture website run by former ESPN columnist Bill Simmons.

Portnoy included a link to a little-noticed blog he had written in 2015 about the efforts by employees at now-defunct Gawker Media to form a union. He said he hoped his employees tried to organize so he could “smash their little union to smithereens,” but the post reads more like satirical commentary than a real threat.

Rafi Letzter, a staff writer at Live Science, responded to Portnoy’s tweet with an invitation to help Barstool employees learn more about unionization. Live Science’s staff is represented by the Writers Guild of America East.

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Portnoy retweeted Letzter’s reply and threatened to fire any of his employees “on the spot” who contacted the writer.

The National Labor Relations Act  forbids employers from discouraging employees who seek to organize a union. The law also forbids unions from coercing workers into joining.

The New York State Department of Labor responded to Portnoy’s comments with a tweet saying it’s illegal “to take any unfavorable action,” including termination, against employees for union-related activities under federal law.

“New York is a proud union state,” the agency said. “We say no way, no how to intimidation, threats and union busting.”

It wouldn’t be unusual for Barstool’s employees to unionize, considering the growing number of digital newsrooms that have fought to organize in recent years.

The WGA East now represents workers at CBSN, Fast Company, The Dodo, Spotify’s Gimlet Media, G/O Media, Verizon Media’s HuffPost, The Intercept, Refinery29, Salon, Slate, Talking Points Memo, ThinkProgress, Thrillist, Vice Media and Vox Media.

Barstool’s Portnoy wouldn’t be the first employer to stop unionization efforts by digital newsroom employees. Billionaire Joe Ricketts, former chairman of TD Ameritrade, shut down the DNAinfo and Gothamist websites in 2017 after their employees unionized.

Portnoy has made a career out of outrageous statements and highly publicized stunts, like handcuffing himself to the floor of the NFL headquarters during a protest. He is hardly a sympathetic character following a series of negative stories, including a Washington Post report that described how he disparaged a female employee's appearance on his radio show.

The Daily Beast last year ran a meticulously detailed story titled “Inside Barstool Sports' Culture of Online Hate: 'They Treat Sexual Harassment and Cyberbullying as a Game.’”

Portnoy's complaint about unions may be just another publicity ploy, given that his employees don't appear to be clamoring to organize. He may even profit from the controversy. Ever the opportunist, Portnoy sent out another tweet offering $28 T-shirts showing his likeness and the words "union buster."

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