Thousands of YouTubers want to unionize, and they've got the support of Europe's largest trade union

Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

YouTube has turned ordinary people into celebrities and created an entirely new class of professionals who make a living on the platform.

But now, tens of thousands of YouTubers have formed a movement demanding greater transparency from the company, and Europe's largest trade union is backing them.

YouTubers get a cut of the revenue when ads are placed in their videos. But in response to backlash from brands whose ads were being shown on inappropriate videos, in 2017 YouTube decided to implement stricter policies to prevent ads from appearing next to offensive content. If YouTube's algorithms determine that a video violates their advertising guidelines, it removes all ads from the video, also known as demonetization.

Jörg Sprave is a YouTuber based in Germany who builds and tests extreme slingshots and crossbows. He started his channel in 2009 and now, with over 2.2 million subscribers, being a YouTuber is his full-time job.

In 2017, Sprave noticed that his videos were being demonetized seemingly without reason, preventing him from earning money on the platform. "I fail to understand YouTube's decisions," he wrote in a Facebook post in April 2017. Sprave started the YouTubers Union Facebook group in March 2018 as a place for dissatisfied creators to gather and organize against YouTube's new advertising rules. The group now has over 20,000 members.

Sprave's took his efforts to the next level in July, when the YouTubers Union partnered with IG Metall to start the FairTube campaign. IG Metall is a German union founded in 1949 with over 2 million members, making it Europe's largest trade union. Although it was originally founded to advocate for the country's metalworkers, IG Metall has expanded to represent other industries.

YouTube has pushed back against FairTube and IG Metall's claims of unfair treatment. "We're deeply invested in creators' success," a YouTube spokesperson told CNBC Make It. "We also need to ensure that users feel safe and that advertisers feel confident that YouTube is safe for their brand. We take lots of feedback as we work to get this balance right."

Still, FairTube is not backing down on its demands for change at the company, and it has set a deadline of August 23, 2019 for YouTube to come to the negotiating table. If YouTube refuses, the organizers have threatened legal action to force the company's hand.

FairTube's demands for YouTube include:

  • Transparency in decisions surrounding demonetization
  • A direct line of communication to a company representative
  • An independent board to resolve disputes between creators and YouTube
  • A YouTubers advisory board where creators can weigh in on company decisions

"YouTube calls the YouTubers 'partners,' but in reality that's not the case," Sprave said in a video announcing the campaign. "YouTube has all the power, and this is not how a partnership works."

One method is claiming that YouTubers are actually employees of YouTube and not self-employed like the company claims. "There is some evidence that YouTubers may be falsely self-employed. For example, they are continuously rated and monitored by YouTube, and only YouTube managers the relationship with advertisers," said IG Metall lawyer Thomas Klebe in a video announcing the partnership.

FairTube is also considering appealing to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect last year. GDPR states that individuals have a right to request a copy of their personal data collected by companies. FairTube claims that YouTube's decisions about whether or not to place ads on individual videos fall under this umbrella, and that data should be made available to YouTubers as part of GDPR.

Whether or not YouTube decides to change its policies as a result, the support FairTube has gained is a clear indication that the traditional notion of work is no longer relevant for many people. Companies ranging from Google to Lyft have struggled to keep up as workers demand greater protections in a rapidly changing economy, and now it seems YouTube is no exception.

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