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Unions have had a long history representing media workers at traditional media organizations. But now they are being tested, as those very same traditional media outlets are creating more and more non-union digital jobs while eliminating union jobs. Unions have always had a role in helping workers vs. the media companies, but now they must figure out how to negotiate the tricky world of digital media.

Recently, the Writers Guild of America, representing TV and screenwriters in Hollywood, voted to strike starting on Monday. The main sticking point is that writers want their fair share of digital revenues that studios are making by selling downloads of TV shows and movies online — or the ad revenues they make streaming them. The problem, as the Hollywood Reporter’s Paul Bond points out so well, is that no one knows how much money digital downloads will bring in.

“The subject is fraught for other past perceived mistakes that the guilds made two decades ago with the producers,” writes Bond. “Writers in fact aren’t cashing in much from DVDs because they struck what generally was considered a lousy home video deal 22 years ago, one that hasn’t been improved on since. The WGA wants to make sure the same doesn’t happen in the Internet era; the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers], not surprisingly, wants to treat digital downloads no differently from the way VHS tapes were — and DVDs are still — treated.”

In this case, the WGA needs to consider the potential of digital media and not just the current revenues with TV and movie downloads. Hollywood execs might not be pulling in a huge percentage of revenues online, but that could change in the future and writers don’t want to be left out again.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists in the UK is in a much different kind of bind — one of its own making and of its own mindset about digital media. The union ran a series of reports in its member magazine (not online) about digital media, including a piece by NUJ rep and online journalist Donnacha DeLong calling Web 2.0 “rubbish.” The union’s failure to grasp the changing digital world brought howls of contempt in the blogosphere, and the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade actually dropped out of the union.

“Despite [one worker’s] continuing sympathies for colleagues, and his lingering desire to remain faithful to the NUJ, he will realise that the demands of a paper gradually moving from print to screen are inimical to those of a union that, despite its pro-digital rhetoric, is committed only to preserving outdated demarcation lines, defying the need for flexibility and struggling to fend off staff cuts that, in fairness, will be necessary,” Greenslade wrote. “How could I possibly remain a union member when I now hold such views?”

In other words, as the shift goes from traditional print to web jobs, how will unions figure into the mix? Will they accept more flexible, always-on jobs, or defend the old ways of working for print deadlines? What do you think the role of unions should be in the digital age? How can they adapt and still serve workers as the web becomes an important medium for distribution of journalism and entertainment? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and I’ll run the best ones in a future Your Take Roundup.