Union Spirit Erupts in New York Times Newsroom

A last-minute contract negotiation cancellation by management on Monday sparked an outpouring from one of New York City’s oldest editorial guilds, even among “the longtime traditionalists”

The union fervor sweeping newsrooms, especially among the younger staffers at digital shops, has never seemed to reach The New York Times. That may be changing. In some ways, the relative lack of labor clamor in the Times newsroom is due to its age: The news and editorial departments of The Times first voted to join the Newspaper Guild in 1941. So the organizing battles that have energized other publications in recent years are beyond the living memory of Times editors and reporters. (One of the reasons the newsroom was one of the last departments to unionize more than 80 years ago is because then-publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger was adamantly opposed to journalists unionizing, arguing it “would militate against the complete impartiality that is the essence of the news” and going so far as to personally lobby President Franklin Roosevelt on the matter.)

That is not to say that the Times Guild has been inactive. Guild leadership was kept busy for much of the last two decades by seemingly constant rounds of layoffs and buyouts. And in 2017, when the central copy desk was eliminated along with half of its copy editor jobs, hundreds in the Times  newsroom staged a walkout in protest. But this past June, more than 100 Guild members, including prominent bylines such as Maggie Haberman, Jodi Kantor, Meghan Twohey, Wesley Morris, Nellie Bowles, and Trip Gabriel, campaigned against a referendum to raise union dues, arguing the Guild’s organizing efforts at other publications “need to slow down.” (The measure passed anyway.) And, of course, some of those union expansion efforts have been at Times departments. The Wirecutter editorial union was recognized in 2019, less than three years after The Times acquired the product review site. And since this past summer, a Times tech worker union has sought recognition, staging a walkout in August.

So it was notable when a coordinated newsroom effort erupted onto Twitter on Monday after management decided not to show up at a scheduled contract bargaining session. Numerous Times staffers, including cultural critic Amanda Hess and reporters Anne Barnard, Kevin Draper, Davey Alba, and Ryan Mac, all posted the same tweet: “Today hundreds of my @nytimes colleagues and I were denied access to our contract talks. Management refused to bargain if we were present. This is unacceptable. It’s time for NYT to stop stalling and start bargaining.”

In a way, it began with the meeting format endemic to the COVID era: Zoom. The reason given for the cancellation was that the 250 Guild members who had registered to be observers — with mics muted and cameras on to confirm their identities — was too many for management. “We have and will continue to accommodate a manageable number of observers from within the bargaining unit. But having 250 people attend Zoom bargaining sessions is antithetical to productive negotiations,” a Times spokesperson said in a statement to The Fine Print. “The bargaining process in labor relations works best when there are focused discussions between two consistent committees that allow the free flow of ideas.”

“In the old days, it would have been in some room, right? And you would have to like, make time and go stand there for a few hours,” said a Guild member who spoke to The Fine Print anonymously. “Now you can sit at your desk at home, and log in, and just keep it minimized in the corner while you’re working. And they fucking hate that.”

“We think it’s really important that these negotiations be transparent,” said Stacy Cowley, a business reporter and a Guild unit council member on the bargaining committee. At a July session, which attracted over 100 Guild members, Cowley said that management showed up, but then there “was at least half an hour where they literally sat silent and refused to talk. It was bizarre.”

The current contract negotiations have already dragged on for four months. It’s also been 18 months since anyone in the Guild has received a raise. So there was a lot of interest among members to see the two sides make some progress. The Guild shared its list of 250 attendees with management last Friday. On Monday, around 10 a.m., The Times’s executive director of labor relations, Chris Biegner, contacted the Guild’s local representative, Alex Kulenovic, to inform him that management would not be attending the meeting.

“It started spreading out through Signal and text and Slack. And people were just like, ‘Are you fucking kidding?’ Like, it was like a little bomb,” said the Guild member.

“I think it’s fair to say we were shocked,” Cowley said. “We were disappointed and offended and surprised.” She estimated that about 120 people logged in anyway, channeling their energy into an impromptu organizing session in the newly freed-up Zoom room.

After the previous contract expired on March 31, the Guild came to the first bargaining session in June with a slate of proposals, including retroactively correcting the bylines of trans employees, improved healthcare coverage in areas like fertility and mental health, and renegotiated terms on intellectual property rights, as well as a demand to increase the guaranteed annual raise from 2 percent to 6 percent.

Currently, the median salary among The New York Times’s approximately 4,700 total employees is $159,509.  But the median salary for the 1,300 Guild members is $119,000. Cowley explained that a 6 percent annual raise would close that gap within five years. They are also proposing a minimum salary of $65,000, up from the current floor of $37,572.

The new contract negotiations come during a stretch when The New York Times Company regularly boasts about its thriving financials in its quarterly earnings calls. In the most recent, in August, the company celebrated reaching a milestone of 8 million paying subscribers while also reporting holding nearly $1 billion in cash.

“I think everyone recognizes that it’s time for rank and file employees of The Times to get a piece of the financial success of the newspaper,” said the Guild member. “I am a senior employee. I’m well paid, I’m doing fine. That’s not why I got involved in any of this. I’m involved because I have a lot of colleagues who are in more financially precarious positions.” They added, “Part of your diversity problem is a pay problem.”

Crowley credited a confluence of factors for “raising the awareness of the longtime traditionalists.” First, she explained, is the “wave of unionization across the media landscape.” Second, the current Guild leadership at the local and national levels were elected after campaigning to move away from opaque backroom dealings and towards a member-driven union. Finally, she suggested that the instability brought on by the pandemic and general changes in the media industry has made the Guild more essential than ever.

A spokesperson for The Times said, “We remain ready to negotiate with the Guild in subcommittees and look forward to resuming negotiations with our full committees once the Guild agrees to return to what had been our mutually agreed upon practice for decades.”

In the meantime, the Guild member said, “I suspect that if we continue to get a non-response on the economics, you will see the biggest labor action at The Times since they fired all the copy editors.”