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Shrugging Off Anti-Union Campaign, New York Times Tech Workers See a Chance to Make History

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

Times workers plan to ride the media union wave right onto a bigger wave of tech organizing.

In April, more than 650 tech workers at the New York Times announced that they were unionizing with the NewsGuild, forming what would instantly become one of the biggest unions of tech workers in America. Times management refused to voluntarily recognize the union, a break that could be a harbinger of more hostile labor relations throughout the media industry. But the tech workers remain supremely confident that they will prevail?—?and they are already contemplating the start of a much bigger union wave in the broader tech industry. 

For the past six years, newsrooms have been unionizing at a rapid clip, making the media one of the labor movement’s bright spots. Most of those unions, though, consist solely of journalists and other workers on the editorial side of publications. It has not gone unnoticed that everywhere that has a media union also has a large group of tech workers who could potentially be organized as well. For unions, tech-side employees of media companies represent both an obvious way into the mostly non-union tech industry, and a chance to further consolidate power for workers inside of companies that are already partly unionized. In this context, the NYT Tech Guild marks an important strategic step for the labor movement in two powerful industries.

Organizing among Times tech workers began about two years ago, according to Goran Svorcan, a senior software engineer who was involved from its early stages. The pandemic delayed the effort, but the work continued with help from organizers at the NewsGuild, which has long represented the Times newsroom. Svorcan had never been in a union before, but says that it seemed like the ?“logical next step” in addressing employee concerns. Contrary to common stereotypes about why tech workers and engineers have not widely organized (because they are too libertarian-minded, or because they are an individualistic culture), Svorcan believes that unions are in line with the public-minded ideals of early internet pioneers?—?ideals that faded as the industry became rich and powerful. ?“It’s kind of a proto-organizing model in a way,” he says of the collaborative nature of much of software engineering. ?“Seeing other people as allies, not [being on] a remote island is something I think is core to the early tech visions.” 

Kathy Zhang, a senior manager of audience analytics at the Times who was also involved from the very beginning of the organizing campaign, says that she and her colleagues have always been conscious of playing a part in spreading unionization in tech, even listening to the oral history of the Kickstarer union drive for inspiration. ?“One amazing result of our union going public has been seeing other underground tech unions inviting us to their organizing meetings. Tech is an industry ripe for unionization,” Zhang says. ?“We’re excited to be the largest majority tech union in the country, but we’ll be even more ecstatic to pass that torch onto the next tech workers to unionize!” 

Indeed, the tantalizing possibility of organizing the tech workers at all of the media companies that were being swept up in their own modern union wave occurred to Nozlee Samadzadeh years ago, when she helped her then-colleagues at Vox Media unionize?—?an editorial union that she, as a tech worker, was not eligible for. When she joined the Times as a senior software engineer in 2020, she got her chance. ?“It was something I felt so strongly about. I wanted to believe that tech workers could unionize,” she says. ?“It was inspiring to people when they realized we could do something about our health insurance, or about diversity, that wasn’t just asking management for something, or being part of a management-sponsored committee.” 

As is often the case, tech workers at the Times found when they started speaking to coworkers that there were a remarkably common set of issues that people wanted to address: pay equity, improving diversity, better health insurance, improved career development, and the end of at-will employment. The company’s refusal to voluntarily recognize the union, and instead to demand a formal NLRB election?—?despite voluntarily recognizing a similar union at the company’s Wirecutter division in 2019, and despite the paper having editorialized in favor of voluntary recognition?—?caused surprise and disappointment among the workers themselves, who say that they expected better from the purportedly liberal institution. Instead of open arms, however, they have received an overt anti-union campaign from management, complete with mandatory ?“captive audience” meetings and insinuations that a union could cost employees the benefits they already have. 

New York Times Co. spokesperson Daniell Rhoades Ha says that contrary to the ?“overwhelming support” for a union at the Wirecutter, ?“In this case, we heard, and continue to hear, a significant amount of reservations and uncertainty among our technology and digital teams about what a union would mean for them. It is clear to us that our colleagues want more information in order to determine the best path for their future and want the opportunity to have a vote on the matter, rather than the company making the decision to recognize the proposed new unit.”

It is a familiar justification for an anti-union campaign, and one that Samadzadeh characterizes as ?“concern trolling… well-meaning, paternalistic, pretending that they have a care for our welfare.” She rejects the company’s overt nod to the idea that tech workers are somehow different from other employees who have unionized in the past. ?“We’re workers,” she says. ?“The problems we have are very similar to the ones in the newsroom.” 

As it stands, members of the NYT Tech Guild say they are continuing to organize and collect union cards as the polite-but-insistent anti-union campaign from management grinds on. (They will not disclose the number of union cards they have collected so far.) There is no date for the formal NLRB election yet, but if history is any guide, the company’s insistence on drawing out the process will not succeed?—?virtually all of the media union drives in recent years that have faced anti-union campaigns have succeeded anyhow. And the tech workers at the Times are propelled by an extra sense of historical importance. 

“Institutions like The Times are still figuring out how to support career pathways that don’t rely on elite universities. Our union can speed up that progress, benefitting my coworkers and the next generation of Times tech workers,” says Bön Champion, a senior product designer who is on the Tech Guild’s organizing committee. ?“If we make this the decade where laborers in this country organize and realize their collective power, I think there’s a lot to be hopeful about. In tech specifically, our pay and benefits are largely a reflection of a competitive workplace with Big Tech at the forefront. Which means the conditions of our work are largely trickling down from Silicon Valley. If tech organizing spreads, instead those conditions will be set by the workers themselves, in their own offices and communities.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Digital media workers continue to organize, this week in the war on workers

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Medium is the latest digital media outlet to unionize, with that news coming Thursday after a “strong majority” of 140 workers signed cards to join the Communications Workers of America.

“I think a lot of people perceive media as this white-collar profession, but the reality of working in a lot of media jobs was really low salaries, bad benefits, very little job stability,” Hamilton Nolan, formerly a key worker activist at Gawker—the first digital news company to get a union contract—and now a labor reporter at In These Times, said to CNN. Nolan was commenting on the general trend, which has included union organizing at HuffPost, Salon, Slate, Vox, and more. “One thing that the unions have done across the industry in many, many places is just to put in place a basic safety net for workers.”

It wasn’t just Medium this week, though. Workers at Daily Kos were able to announce that management has voluntarily recognized a union here after a majority of workers signed cards to join the NewsGuild, also a part of the Communications Workers of America. On a personal note, I’m proud to have worked at Daily Kos for nearly 10 years, and I’m proud to be a NewsGuild member for the second time.

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  • Karen Lewis, the legend-in-our-time former president of the Chicago Teachers Union, died Feb. 7. Following the electrifying teachers strike she led in 2012, Lewis had been planning to run for mayor of Chicago against Rahm Emanuel in 2015 when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Lewis was an inspirational leader, but also the leader of a truly democratic movement that has stayed strong in the wake of her being forced to step back.

Here are some remembrances of Lewis, beginning with one from her union:

Karen had three questions that guided her leadership: ‘Does it unite us, does it build our power and does it make us stronger?’ Before her, there was no sea of red — a sea that now stretches across our nation. She was the voice of the teacher, the paraprofessional, the clinician, the counselor, the librarian and every rank-and-file educator who worked tirelessly to provide care and nurture for students; the single parent who fought tremendous odds to raise a family; and the laborer whose rights commanded honor and respect. She was a rose that grew out of South Side Chicago concrete — filled with love for her Kenwood Broncos alumni — to not only reach great heights, but to elevate everyone she led to those same heights.

But Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement. In 2013, she said that in order to change public education in Chicago, we had to change Chicago, and change the political landscape of our city. Chicago has changed because of her. We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen, and because she was a champion — the people’s champion.

Labor Notes

The energy that Karen Lewis brought to the teacher union labor movement vibrates through unions across the country. When you see fire in educators who are standing with students and community to demand justice, look in those flames for her unwavering determination—and her wide smile.

WBEZ Chicago:

[CTU Vice President Stacy] Davis Gates said it was Lewis that gave union leaders and teachers in Chicago the conviction to take on the fight.

“You see all of the threads and the fruits of her labor manifesting in a way where you don’t have just the one, you have the mightier, you have the more stable, you have a chorus of voices shaking their hand and demanding the justice she embodied as the leader of this union,” she said.

  • Relatedly, Chicago teachers again came to the brink of a strike as Mayor Lori Lightfoot sought to force them back into schools without adequate safety measures, but ultimately agreed to an improved school reopening plan.
  • Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to unionize.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 13, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Tribune Emerges Today from 4-year Bankruptcy, with Intent to Sell All Newspapers, TV Stations

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Warren Buffett or civic-minded local investors in L.A., Chicago, Baltimore or other Tribune cities might be unable to purchase the papers individually, unless or until they were broken up by a subsequent owner. 

The newspaper sale has been anticipated for months, but Tribune was expected to keep and grow its broadcast business, so the offloading of those properties.

 As the Tribune company ends a four-year period of bankruptcy today, it plans to sell all of its media properties, according to a report by Robert Channick.

Tribune Co. owns 23 television stations, including WGN-Ch. 9, WGN America, eight daily newspapers and other media assets, all of which the reorganization plan valued at $4.5 billion after cash distributions and new financing. Eventually, all the assets are expected to be sold, according to the new owners.

A financial analysis this year estimated the broadcast assets are worth $2.85 billion; a stake in the Food Network and Internet companies including CareerBuilder is worth $2.26 billion; and the company’s newspapers are worth $623 million.
Multiple newspaper owners have expressed interest in Tribune’s papers.

Kushner also told the AP, “he expects the Tribune’s new owners would sell the newspapers in a single package.” In that case, buyers like Ws would be a surprise.

The sale of the broadcast properties could make News Corp. a more likely buyer (it might even be an incentive for them to buy the less lucrative newspapers), as they already own TV stations in some of the same markets, and the FCC is moving toward relaxing cross-ownership rules.

Tribune CEO Eddy Hartenstein will remain in that role for the next few weeks until the new board appoints a new CEO, most likely former broadcast executive Peter Ligouri.

This post was originally posted by Broadcast Union News on December 31, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Robert Daraio is a Local Representative at The Newspaper Guild of New York, CWA Local 31003. He lives in New York.


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Workers Cheer Living Wage Victory in Austin

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Barbara DohertyConstruction workers and others in the Austin, Texas, area are celebrating a coalition victory this week after Travis County commissioners approved a first-ever economic development policy that includes a living wage requirement.

The policy requires contractors asking for tax incentives to move into the county to pay all employees at least $11 per hour. It’s a significant improvement over the prevailing construction hourly wage of $7.50.

On the same day the county provision passed, a subcommittee of the Austin City Council passed a similar policy, which will come to the full council in the coming months. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman, both the city and county have been criticized about generous tax incentives offered in recent years to major companies such as Apple and Marriott.

Along with faith-based and student organizations, the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council, the Laborers (LIUNA), the Electrical Workers (IBEW), AFSCME Local 1624, Education Austin (AFT) and Texas State Employees Union (TSEU)/CWA Local 6186 participated in the yearlong campaign spearheaded by the Austin-based Workers Defense Project (WDP). The 1,000-member WDP has worked for 10 years on wage theft and other workers’ rights issues.

Austin Interfaith and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) were among others that supported the campaign.

“Really, what this means is construction workers are starting to have a say in their working conditions and their pay,” WDP organizer Greg Casar told a celebratory crowd after the county commissioners voted.

This post was originally posted on November 30, 2012 at AFL-CIO NOW. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Barbara Doherty: My dad drove a laundry delivery truck in San Francisco and I came to appreciate unions sitting in the waiting room at the Teamsters vision center there. More than 30 years ago, I joined the international SEIU publications staff (under the union’s legendary, feisty president, George Hardy). Living in California, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., over the years, I have contributed countless news and feature articles, as well as editing, to the publications and websites of unions in the public and private sectors and the construction trades.


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Shafted: Reflecting on Miners, Media and Margaret Thatcher

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kari-lydersenMany coal-fired power plants in the United States are closing because of cheap natural gas prices, and while the closings are cheered for environmental and health reasons, some unions lament the loss of jobs. Many who are happy to see coal plants close are also frustrated that the change is driven by a rush for gas that could curb investment in clean wind power and the “green jobs” mass wind farm construction could create. Others mourn waning interest in the development of “clean coal” technology that arguably could let the United States tap its vast domestic coal reserves more responsibly.

Three decades ago, Great Britain had its own “Dash for Gas,” during which coal power plants and coal mines were closed as the country turned to natural gas to generate electricity. But the primary motive then was neither cheap and abundant natural gas nor environmental concern. Rather, it was then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s determined campaign to smash the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the labor movement in general, and to privatize public industries.

Given current conversations about our energy futures in the United States and worldwide —not to mention scandals in British media and U.S. battles over public union rights—I think it is worth revisiting the 2009 book, Shafted: The Media, The Miners Strike and the Aftermath.

Edited by Granville Williams, this compilation explores the role of spin, solidarity and strategy in the bitter 1984-1985 strike by miners and sympathetic union members as the Thatcher government and police acting on its behalf moved to gut the miners union and close many coal mines. Chapters written by prominent journalists and others detail the seedy ethics of many mainstream media outlets; the role of alternative media; early examples of community and “citizen journalism;” and the power of propaganda and popular organizing wielded by various parties to the conflict.

There are juicy and shameful examples of media outlets’ questionable ethics and bald partisanship, juxtaposed with the solidarity stands of union journalists and printers who refused to publish slanderous propaganda or who invoked equal-time policies to demand the miners be given a chance to tell their side.

The book notes The Sun’s plans to publish a photo of union leader Arthur Scargill cropped to make it appear he was doing a Nazi salute, The Daily Mirror’s claims that union leaders paid their mortgages with Libyan cash when they didn’t even have mortgages, and the BBC’s manipulation of camera footage to make it appear miners rather than police were the first to become violent in the seminal clash at Orgreaves.
Regarding the Libyan story, which was supplied by a union staffer who approached the tabloid, author Robin Ramsay notes wryly, “Ah, the logic of the tabloid journalist: he didn’t ask for money, so he must be telling the truth.”

Shafted, published with a grant from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, criticizes journalistic laziness and the lack of context that plagued even the less-abhorrent coverage. For example, the Tory government’s statements about the “uneconomic” nature of certain union mines and the wisdom of burning up limited North Sea gas reserves in lieu of coal went unquestioned, according to Shafted, and the conflict was too often portrayed as a battle between colorful adversaries (namely Thatcher and Scargill) than a showdown that would determine the well-being of working people for many years to come.

As a counter to most of the mainstream media’s performance, Shafted celebrates the role of the grassroots alternative media, the NUM’s own journal, and documentaries and articles by miners and community members, produced with the help of grassroots media organizations and the public Channel 4.

The book notes that journalists at alternative outlets with names like Leeds Other Paper, Islington Gutter Press and Sheep Worrying could personally relate to the DIY mentality and sense of mission and passion of the union miners and their supporters. Along with print media, the book also examines music, poetry and major movies like Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. It catalogues the use of music to raise funds and awareness, from local punk shows to benefits by the likes of Chumbawumba and Billy Bragg.

One chapter about movies and plays in decades after the strike describes how popular pieces like Billy Elliott furthered the Thatcherite idea of individualism triumphing over collectivism, and the glossing over of the impacts on depressed “pit villages” where to paraphrase sources, now heroin instead of coal runs in the veins of youth.

Perhaps the most insightful chapter is a soul-searching essay by former BBC journalist Nicholas Jones, who looks back with dismay at how he and other journalists unquestioningly bought into the Thatcher narrative of militant trade unions as the “enemy within.” He takes a more nuanced view than other contributors of mainstream media’s performance, and notes that union leader Scargill’s portrayal of the media as the enemy was counter-productive since it meant journalists were often received with scorn or violence in pit villages, and thus understandably less likely to tell the people’s stories. (Other chapters also describe how police brutally attacked and arrested journalists trying to report objectively on the conflict.)

Jones also describes how the birth of the 24-hour highly competitive news cycle contributed to flawed coverage of the strike, and dissects why media coverage of mass protests against more pit closures in the early 1990s was by contrast highly sympathetic to the miners. Jones writes:

With the benefit of hindsight, and subsequent evidence of a vindictive pit closure programme which continued during the decade which followed the strike, perhaps the news media should own up to a collective failure of judgment comparative to that during the buildup to the Iraq war.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.


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Where Have All the Labor Writers Gone?

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Consider the fate of the labor reporter. A long vanishing breed, there are only a few of them left in the country.

Businesses and their mouthpieces disparage them for daring to question their facts, their motives and for humanizing the stories that Corporate America wishes would remain distant and bloodless so nobody would pay attention to them.

Union supporters often question their support for organized labor. And they frequently accuse labor reporters of hyping their coverage in order to draw attention to their articles while failing to convey the deeper, more significant issues that confront unions.

Then there is the small collection of union crooks, and bullies who despise labor reporters because they dare to look under their unions’ hoods and to expose wrong-doing.

And yet the surviving labor reporters go on. They persist even though many of them have been scattered to the far corners of news operations by editors convinced that their stories no longer matter, and despite the crushing presence of business news that treats workers and unions as if they were invisible and unconnected to what goes on.

New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse is one of these survivors. He was recently snarled in a dispute with some union officials that says something about the job’s many thankless hassles.

In November, he wrote an article detailing complaints of current and former members of Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, with what they described as a longstanding practice known as pink-sheeting.

Citing interviews with “more than a dozen organizers,” Greenhouse detailed workers’ allegations that they were pressured to detail personal issues that they said were later used against them as a way to control or manipulate them.

John W. Wilhelm, Unite Here’s president, who was quoted as saying that he condemned such tactics, also described its presence within in the union as “rare.” But he also told Greenhouse that he was “cracking down on what pink sheeting existed.”

Not long after the article appeared, the Union of Unite Here Staff (UUHS) issued a public letter, heaping a mountain of complaints onto Greenhouse’s shoulders. The group accused the story of being founded on “trumped claims” from disgruntled former staffers, and of failing to link the complaints to the larger dispute that not long ago drove the former hotel workers and garment workers unions to abruptly break up their union marriage.

What’s Greenhouse’s take on these gripes?

Citing Wilhelm’s own admission that such abuses have existed and accounts from others familiar with them, he doesn’t think the complaints are made up.

Nor does he think he failed to point out the battling between the unions.

Indeed, the story did talk about the break-up and cited as well Wilhelm’s supporters who said that the complaints were coming from his union’s foes.

Could he have fleshed out more in detail the roots of pink-sheeting within organized labor? Possibly, I think. Could he have moved higher in the story the details about the unions’ toxic break-up? Possibly.

But questioning his “journalistic integrity,” doesn’t fit well.

Not when you consider reporting over the years about union victories ignored by most of the mainstream media, otherwise untold stories about companies’ abusive practices that unions stood up against, and stories about unions and their leaders that reached more than some husbands and young children.

It’s a pain delivering bad news about unions when they are so down on their luck, but  that’s one of the burdens of being a fair and honest labor reporter.

It’s also a responsibility.

I know, because I spent quite a long time doing the job, and can tell you all about the rewards and headaches, among them angry words hurled at you by union officials who say you are not on their side.

But truly you are not on their side.

You are there to tell the truth, to tell the human story, and to make sure nobody forgets that workers and unions count. And that’s a fact nobody should deny.

This article originally appeared in Working In These Times on December 12, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Stephen Franklin was the Chicago Tribune‘s labor and workplace reporter until August 2008.


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