We asked the biggest YouTubers if they want a union. The silence was deafening

Google needs to speak up by Friday, or the YouTubers Union will go to court.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

YouTube is the world's biggest online video source, with more than 2 billion people visiting every month. 

Angela Lang/CNET

A YouTubers Union has joined forces with one of the biggest traditional labor unions in the world, exerting a pressure campaign against the massive video site. They want YouTube and parent company Google to negotiate on demands like exposing the rules of its algorithms. If they don't respond by Friday, the unions could take them to court

But you wouldn't know it by following the biggest YouTubers on the planet -- they're staying out of it. 

We reached out to more than 30 of the most-subscribed YouTuber channels within the overall top 100. The smallest among them had more than 21 million subscribers. They're all "digital natives" -- none were the music superstars, traditional TV shows or major media companies that dominate YouTube's very top rankings. 

But none of the biggest YouTubers would comment on the union or its FairTube campaign. A rep for PewDiePie, the biggest YouTuber of all with nearly 100 million channel subscribers, sent a prompt "no comment" reply. Same with a rep for Pinkfong, the Korean educational video channel that went viral two years ago thanks to Baby Shark

Most of them didn't respond at all. 

Their detachment is one of the reasons the YouTuber Union has struggled to generate mainstream attention in the last year and a half since it was founded. By speaking out, the most influential YouTubers -- the ones with the clout that could drum up major buzz among some of YouTube's more than 2 billion monthly users -- would risk biting the hand that feeds them, all for the sake of a union that won't be fighting for their needs.

"The people at YouTube listen to what I have to say, so if something goes wrong, they tend to fix it," said Hank Green, one half of the Vlog Brothers and an influential YouTuber whose main channels have more than 18 million subscribers combined. He and his channels have "a different level of access." 

YouTube Personality Hank Green waves from a chair on stage

Hank Green's main YouTube channels have more than 18 million subscribers. 

Getty Images

"I'm the worst person to know what it's like," he said. But "there has to be some kind of collective voice for independent creators. ... Right now YouTube's solution of the problem is just to listen to all of the people who have a big enough audience that, if they complain, it's a public relations problem."

But so far, none of the world's biggest YouTubers are lending their union's effort into Google or YouTube's PR headache. 

Jörg Sprave, the founder and spokesman for the YouTube Union, said that even the world's biggest YouTubers were affected by 2017's so-called "adpocalypse," when YouTube hastily cracked down on the kinds of clips that could run ads and make money, a practice known as demonetization. But the top YouTubers "enjoy privileges that are out of reach for small and midsize creators," he said. "They don't need the same amount of protection, and their situation isn't as desperate."

A separate group of YouTubers last week decided that to get the protection they want on YouTube, they would sue for it. Filing suit against Google and YouTube in US District Court in Northern California, a collection of LGBTQ+ creators claimed the companies discriminate against their videos and a community on YouTube who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. With a shot already across YouTube's bow, the group said they "stand in solidarity" with the YouTubers Union. 

"Many LGBTQ+ YouTubers around the world have made their livings off of their YouTube video content," they said in a group statement Monday. YouTube's introduction of stricter and vague policies have lead to "unfair and unequal demonetization and treatment of content on the YouTube platform," they added. "Countless creators around the world have been significantly impacted."

Sprave himself founded the YouTuber Union after videos on his channel, a celebration of crazy slingshots, were cut off from running ads and making revenue, even though they didn't violate any of YouTube's guidelines. But until last month, the YouTuber Union was mostly limited to a loose association of 10,000 to 20,000 members who joined a Facebook group. 

That changed when IG Metall joined forces. 

Watch this: YouTube's next clash may be with an army of its own creators (The Daily Charge, 8/20/2019)

A huge German union with deep resources, legal expertise and a track record on labor issues, IG Metall lent the YouTubers Union the kind of legitimacy that could get Google's attention, while the biggest-name YouTubers haven't. 

Sprave said in a video posted Saturday that Google has unofficially told the unions it will respond to their request for formal negotiations before a deadline this week. If Google and YouTube don't respond by Friday, the unions plan to take their fights to courts. 

One of IG Metall's strategies is to apply Europe's expansive data-privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation known as GDPR, to the YouTubers complaints. They argue that YouTube's sorting and tagging to decide what to promote, recommend or monetize counts as data covered by GDPR. The law has extensive requirements making companies transparent about the data they collect.

Friday's deadline is based on GDPR's timeline for official complaints. 

Google didn't respond to a request for comment about that assertion. But it shared its standard statement about the union since it launched the FairTube campaign with the help of IG Metall last month. 

"We're deeply invested in creators' success, that's why we share the majority of revenue with them. We also need to ensure that users feel safe and that advertisers feel confident that YouTube is safe for their brand," the company said. "We take lots of feedback as we work to get this balance right, including by meeting with hundreds of creators every year. However, contrary to what is being claimed, YouTube creators are not YouTube employees by legal status." 

Green, for one, will grant YouTube the first point: He makes plenty of content that generates activity on Facebook and Twitter, he said, and YouTube is the only one sharing some of that revenue back with him and his team. But the difficulties that smaller YouTubers face are legitimate too, he said. 

"Big YouTubers often think to themselves, 'Oh, they're just complaining that their YouTube channel isn't big.' And that's an easy way to write it off, because to some extent, that's a thing that's happening," Green said. "That's not the only thing that's happening, though. And that's really important for big YouTubers to realize." 

Originally published Aug. 20.
Update, Aug. 21: Adds the unions' GDPR strategy.