YouTube Changes Renew Calls For YouTubers To Unionise

YouTube Changes Renew Calls For YouTubers To Unionise
Image: Nathan Grayson, Original Bemused Face Image By Youtube

To say that YouTubers have an uneasy relationship with the company that hosts their videos would be a massive understatement. It’s not uncommon for YouTube to demonetise videos with little in the way of explanation and, as a recent terms of service update reminded users, it can also just straight up remove videos and channels whenever it wants, should it deem such a thing necessary. This has led to renewed calls for YouTubers to unionise, although the logistics of an action like that might be tricky.

This recently added terms of service clause is part of an update that will officially go into effect on December 11. YouTube has already made the details public. The clause states that “YouTube may terminate your access, or your Google account’s access to all or part of the service if YouTube believes, in its sole discretion, that provision of the service to you is no longer commercially viable.” Many initially took this to mean that YouTube might start indiscriminately pulling the plug on channels that don’t have enough subscribers or aren’t otherwise raking in those sweet content dollars.

After a weekend of uproar, YouTube clarified to The Verge that it’s “not changing the way our products work, how we collect or process data, or any of your settings.” Instead, this new update is focused on clarification.

Certainly, it puts things in stark terms; elsewhere in the terms of service, the company outright states that it’s “under no obligation to host or serve Content.” It can, in other words, remove whatever it sees fit. But that’s pretty much always been the case. In addition, a version of the “commercially viable” clause has been in the site’s terms of service since last year. While the latest iteration states that YouTube has “sole discretion” to terminate access, the previous one said that YouTube first needed to “reasonably believe” it had cause to do so.

Still, the sheer degree of control the YouTube exercises over content created by users—even the highest-earning of whom are still contractors, rather than full-time employees—has revived calls for a YouTuber union.

“You(BetterMakeMoneyForUs)Tube,” Emerican Johnson of YouTube channel NonCompete said on Twitter. “This is such a big deal. YouTube is so clearly the enemy of creators. Time to get serious about unionizing.”

“This is also a huge one,” said leftist YouTuber Peter Coffin. “If we could unionize that would be significant.”

In response to these tweets and others like them, many fans pointed to the efforts of a group called FairTube. Organised by Jörg Sprave, a German YouTuber with over 2.3 million subscribers, FairTube describes itself as “a campaign to get more fairness and transparency for all YouTube Creators” and has support from IG Metall, the largest trade union in the EU. Recently, FairTube and IG Metall claimed they had organised a meeting with YouTube, only for that meeting to fall through because, Sprave said, YouTube told him he had his own contact at the company. (YouTubers generally have specific contacts they’re supposed to reach out to within the company to address specific grievances.)

Today, FairTube kicked off a mass letter writing action in response to this. FairTube has yet to make a statement about the new YouTube terms of service, but it remains the most visible example of an organising effort taking place in YouTube’s backyard. Kotaku reached out to FairTube but had yet to hear back as of this publishing.

Given that YouTubers are not employed by YouTube, there are lots of logistical and legal questions surrounding how they might organise. Coffin pointed out that, ultimately, YouTube has power that verges on absolute, and in order for collective action to impact the company, it’s going to have to be extremely collective.

“The automated horseshit we deal with is because we do not have collective power to cause a real problem for YouTube,” he said on Twitter. “We are not significant in their eyes… There’s MANY lifestyle vloggers with single accounts that reach more people than leftist YouTube combined with every single upload. They are able to fight back because they whip those audiences up against YouTube… We can’t be pretending we have power we just don’t have at the moment. The question is how to get that power rather than what to do with it.”


  • Well if you’re going to have a chance to unite all the content creators then the Union is going to need to avoid politics and concentrate on shared values.

    Good luck with that.

    • It doesn’t need to unite all content creators, it only has to have enough name YouTubers on board to make it more commercially sensible to negotiate than not.

      A mass exodus of even 20% of YouTube’s biggest names would result in a big hit to YouTube’s bottom line.

  • I remember when YouTube was all about sharing your own home videos and fun content. Ever since people started making careers out of content creation, and YouTube started selling ads on the platform, I knew that KPIs would drive that revenue. Google is first and foremost and ad space company. It’s why they never created a shopfront like ebay or amazon, because it makes all it’s money selling ads to other shopfronts. I think though that their KPIs are wildly insane and should definitely be scaled based on a channels own target metrics, but again I don’t know how they work so I can’t really say for sure

    I’m still of the firm belief that if YouTube said “pay a $3 monthly subscription, and you won’t see ads” a lot of people would jump on board but a personal sub number like that is way less than the money they make from selling ad space to a big brand

    • “pay a $3 monthly subscription, and you won’t see ads”

      It’s $15 a month and it’s called YouTube Premium. It includes YouTube Music, downloading for offline play, and continuous play while the app is minimised.

      • See I’ve trialled YouTube premium, and just didn’t enjoy the youtube music experience, I feel like I get more ease of use from Spotify premium

        • Agreed… Youtube music is basically an overglorified app version of the Music Tab on the main Youtube app.

          9 out of 10 a search for music I want sends me to just random selection/playlist of the genre or artist I want. The most annoying part is when they sneak in the sponsored music videos which completely clash with the playlist

  • I’d be genuinely interested in how any of it would work from a legal standpoint whilst you’re not technically employed by YouTube.

    Although in Australia (maybe it’s just SA), you’re employed by a company if a certain percentage of your pay comes from the one company, it’s something Telstra has been pulled up on quite a few times whilst trying to claim “But they’re independent contractors”

    • All the Youtubers I know have ABNs or the equivalent and operate as sole traders, this allows them to claim on games, hardware and other office equipment. Those with editors and other staff have a company structure.

    • It wouldn’t have to be a ‘union’ in the strict industrial sense.

      We saw this most recently with the AFLW, where the AFL Players Association negotiated on behalf of the players with respect to collective issues such as minimum compensation levels, the number of games in a season, revenue sharing principles and salary cap, while the actual remuneration of individual players is still negotiated by player agents.

  • “You(BetterMakeMoneyForUs)Tube” – well, Youtube is running a business here, what else do you honestly expect? It costs money to host videos, if the content isn’t generating views/money, it doesn’t make any commercial sense to continue to host the content.

  • Youtubers are some of the most entitled people on the internet, worse than the stereotypical loud mouth gamer. Youtube owes them nothing. They are not employed by Youtube. If they are unhappy with the terms Youtube sets when they host large amounts of video content FOR FREE then they are welcome to move to another video hosting platform or start their own.

    • That’s not how I’d characterise the relationship for many creators these days. They are uploading videos to the site in exchange for a share of advertising revenue. It is a system that should be mutually beneficial for both parties, rather than one freeloading on the other.

      • And YouTube are hosting and serving their content at no cost to the uploader – hence why they sell ads. There’s a reason that no YouTube competitor has managed to displace (or even come close to) YouTube, and it has to do with funding and operating costs.

        • I never said YouTube shouldn’t run ads. Rather that those ads are not just for YouTube’s sole benefit: through the partner program, the creator gets a share. In effect, this is how YouTube pays for the content it runs its ads on.

          • I didn’t suggest that you did. The primary purpose of the ads is to make YouTube money – sharing with partners is a way to anchor users to the service and ensure market dominance. Any partnership is done purely to benefit YouTube. They don’t pay for the content.

          • Sure. The same way the primary purpose of ads on commercial television is to make money. I’m not disputing that.

            I’m saying that the revenue share system is essentially YouTube offering creators a commission for creating new videos to run those ads on. In the past, they’ve also paid creators directly to create content (e.g. 2011’s Original Channel Initiative).

          • It really isn’t though, it’s just revenue sharing, at least in the majority of cases. They don’t commission much (eg We pay you and you make this) – the majority just get paid on what they upload, whatever it is, until the demonetisation stick comes around.

          • I meant “commission” in the same sense as it is used for e.g. retail sales staff where their income is linked to the sales they make for the company. This is basically what is happening on YouTube: creators make videos that advertisers will want their ads attached to in exchange for a percentage of that revenue.

  • Seems like an attempt to use ‘union’ in a way that unions aren’t designed. Trade unions are associations of workers (employees) – these people aren’t employees. They absolutely need a ‘professional association’ (or guild similar) to help them collectively deal with YouTube, but hitching this to the labour movement is ridiculous and disingenuous.

    YouTube is a content platform that serves up advertisements and subscriptions, and shares some of that with people who can monetise their content that they upload. That’s what the relationship boils down to in the vast majority of cases. There’s a colossal difference between an employee, who has their terms of employment and labour provision/engagement dictated, and a YouTuber who posts videos to share in ad revenue with a contract detailing that split (unless you’re contracted as a YouTube exclusive show I guess).

    I support them having a guild to argue against blanket YouTube changes because YouTube is garbage, but I really hate how it’s trying to be associated with trade unions and employee rights. It’s an attempt to turn it into populist ‘leftist’ issues when it has barely any relationship at all. It has only a tiny bit more merit than streamers claiming they’re employees when they’re basically undertaking digital busking.

  • “hey youtube, you owe me a living!”

    youtube doesn’t owe to shit. Go stream on another platform if u think they do and see how far you get.

  • Yeah no. A Youtube union would have even less bargaining power than GMG union.

    You are not employed by youtube. You have no bargaining power. You use their service.

    • Anyone who makes you money has some bargaining power over you. YouTube would be worth nothing if not for the content creators.

      If a large chunk of YouTube’s most significant content creators simultaneously stopped uploading for a few weeks YouTube would be faced with some pretty heavy losses.

      • I doubt it.

        Youtube these days seems to care more about late night tv show highlights than actual content creators.

        Those highlight clips seem to bring in more views and money than traditional creators. Youtube is also owned by google remember. It could easily weather those people leaving.

  • So I was going to post a long rambling comment about how YouTube is a platform that’s now a source of income for many and was previously a platform for expressing oneself, how people develop unhealthy relationships with YouTube because they measure their own worth by numbers (both audience and money) and how YouTube encourages that, and that YouTube as business and YouTube as passion project are sort of incompatible, but I already made a video about it.

    If you want to understand what it feels like being under these systems you have no control over that offer no recourse, recompense to or reason for their actions I think this video does that reasonably well, and stands as the basis for the following comments.

    Given that a lot of these creators actually make more of their money from independent advertising deals and of course Patreon I think this kind of Union argument becomes pretty complicated. While I absolutely sympathise with everyone making a living on YouTube and I think Unions are incredibly important, the particulars of this argument are a good deal more messy than the people pushing it would have you believe. YouTube have been dicks to everyone on a semi-regular basis, have applied their guidelines inconsistently, shown preferrential treatment to particular people even after they demonstrated how morally bankrupt they are and absolutely deserve to be criticised, but some of the problems people have with YouTube is rooted in what people expect and want from the platform, and not actually what the platform itself is doing.

    YouTube shouldn’t be defended, nor should creators be shamed for wanting the additional security a Union could offer, but there are issues with the argument that make it less of a binary this is good / this is bad decision.

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