Unit Chairs in the Hot Seat
So far this year, five heads of media unions in New York — a role they describe as like holding a second unpaid job that can give them a new perspective on the publications they work for — have quit their jobs
The main thing was the number of meetings. Naib Mian, who was The New Yorker’s unit chair before leaving the magazine at the end of May to be an editor in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s digital department, would meet weekly with stewards from across the unit and another time with the unit’s officers; once a month, he would meet with the NewsGuild of New York’s executive committee, which includes all the unit chairs across the local; and for much of the rest of the time, he’d meet with stewards and members one-on-one. “It felt like a second full-time job,” he said. “It was just a lot very regularly.” BuzzFeed News’s former unit chair Addy Baird, who announced she was taking a buyout last month in the division’s downsizing, had a similar experience. She gave up most of her reporting work in the final rush of bargaining her unit’s first contract. “I was just on the phone constantly. I would roll over in the morning, pick up the phone, and keep talking until 8 p.m.,” she said, recalling that it didn’t even let up when she went home to visit her family. “At one point, I was yelling at a Proskauer Rose lawyer while going through airport security,” she said. One way she dealt with the stress was by befriending other unit chairs. “It’s a really weird job,” she said. “It’s always nice to find somebody who knows the particular way that this can drive a person insane.”
But recently, this loose confederation of media union chairs has had a fair amount of turnover. At least five NewsGuild union leaders, including Mian and Baird, have left their publications this year. The others include The Nation’s Annie Shields, Wirecutter’s Nick Guy, who left to help launch The Wall Street Journal’s new recommendation site, Buy Side, and Guy’s successor as Wirecutter unit chair Sarah Kobos, who only held the position for a week before leaving to work for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. There isn’t a single pat explanation for why they’re all leaving in such quick succession, but part of it might have to do with a bunch of shops getting new collective bargaining agreements.
“There’s a chapter of a NewsGuild era coming to a conclusion, which is that huge, huge rush of organizing in the last few years. A lot of people are getting their first contracts,” Baird said. “They’re closing in tandem, and then people are thinking about the future.” Some had been pushing the future out of their mind for the duration of the process. “I certainly know unit chairs who have put off jobs that they wanted to take to finish the contract,” she said. “So you might see turnover right after because the industry actually even moves faster than a contract moves.” But the calm after the storm also offers a chance to reflect on the often rewarding but almost inevitably fraught and complicated position unit chairs occupy.
Even while doing their day jobs, unit chairs cut a certain figure in the workplace and can develop suspicions that there are career repercussions for their organizing work. “On the one hand, with a lot of your colleagues, it builds a really, really strong and trusting relationship, and then with managers, it can be a little uncomfortable at times,” Mian said. “You never really know if it’s because of your union work, or if it’s something else. I think a lot of times those things work in more quiet ways than more explicit ways because, otherwise, that would be retaliation, which they can’t do. But you do feel at times that there are certain people for whom doors just open when they ask for them, and oftentimes, it felt like there was a lot of resistance to opportunities that I was looking for.”
The managers Baird worked with most closely were not adversarial. “Thankfully, BuzzFeed management, particularly Tom Namako and Mark Schoofs, who’ve both unfortunately left, were really very understanding. Often they would be like, ‘We understand that you have a whole other job,’” she recalled. “The relationship that became a lot rockier for me is that actual level of company management, which is quite different at BuzzFeed. When I’m talking to company lawyers, when I’m talking to the head of HR, when I’m talking to Jonah Peretti on Slack, those relationships definitely became rockier.” That’s not such a bad thing, Baird argued. “People expected me to tell them what I thought that they were doing wrong, and I felt like it was a real privilege,” she said, “even though that can make those conversations intense.”
Lingering on the experience of bargaining can fundamentally change a unit chair’s relationship with their publication. “There’s a lot of people who are like, ‘Okay, let me reap the rewards of what we fought for, and stay here to enjoy these new benefits, to enjoy this new salary,’” Mian said, “but for others, it can be such an eye-opening experience that you can’t really come back from it. After being so deeply involved in organizing, it’s great and I feel really great that we won these new things for a lot of people here, but, at the same time, the things that I observed management do during this process make it very hard for me to stay here with the same level of trust in them.”
The acrimony of the experience can make it hard for war-time unit chairs to settle into a more peaceful post-contract dynamic. “Bargaining is a really inherently adversarial and confrontational process and enforcing a contract doesn’t have to be. Enforcing a contract well means communicating well with management,” Baird said. “I certainly don’t want this contract to have to be arbitrated constantly, it would be so much better for us to have healthy relationships where we can discuss and work these things out, but my experience with management has been having to brawl with them at every turn and I think that it’s possible for the same person to do those things, but it can be hard to reset a relationship.”
Baird said she would have stayed post-contract had BuzzFeed not upended its news division, but Mian had been trying to leave The New Yorker even before becoming unit chair. “That was primarily not because of the amount of work between the union and work and all that, but more so just my own issues at The New Yorker, and within my specific role, feeling like there wasn’t a lot of avenues for growth, or for carving out a space for the type of work that I wanted to be doing,” he said. “Had it not been the union work that I was involved in, I may have left sooner. But it was work that I was really invested in and I cared about. And, honestly, in a lot of ways, I think the work that I did in the union was the most fulfilling part of my time at The New Yorker. And so that very much did keep me there for quite some time.”
High turnover is endemic in journalism and can seem like a challenge in organizing. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of having certain leaders or certain people who you see as activists and it’s like, ‘Oh, no, if they leave, if there’s turnover, what’s going to happen to this organizing effort?’” Mian said. “But the whole point of organizing is that it doesn’t work in that way. So much of it is about building up leaders from the ground up and empowering people to continue that fight.” That logic becomes even more essential when a large portion of the staff leaves at once.
“There’s a lot of turnover about to happen at BuzzFeed and I know that the people who are staying who are going to be in union leadership, a lot of them were not on the bargaining committee and were not super deeply involved with that process. I think that’s really good, because they’re going to be able to create a new chapter from a fresh place. I think it’s kind of natural and I think it’s kind of healthy, ultimately,” said Baird, “not that I think that the industry part of it is natural, or healthy, but I think it’s not a death sentence for our union.”