In 2007, the New York Times editorial board published a piece headlined “The Right to Organize,” which explicitly endorsed a provision of a congressional bill known as “majority signup.”
“The most significant change in the bill is known as a majority signup, which would allow employees at a company to unionize if a majority signed cards expressing their desire to do so,” the board wrote. “Under current law, an employer can reject the majority’s signatures and insist on a secret ballot. But in a disturbingly high number of cases, the employer uses the time before the vote to pressure employees to rethink their decision to unionize.”
This is all very true. It’s also exactly what’s currently happening at the New York Times.
Times management, led by CEO Meredith Levien, is currently contesting a move to organize by a group of tech workers not currently represented by the paper’s various unions. The New York Times Tech Guild is seeking recognition as part of the News Guild of New York, which represents nearly all of the paper’s editorial employees. In 2019, the Times voluntarily recognized a group of writers at its e-commerce website, Wirecutter, who had organized with the News Guild. But the Tech Guild is not having the same luck, as management is insisting on pushing the effort to an NLRB election.
In a broader all-hands staff meeting on Thursday, Levien attempted to defend this decision, according to audio of the meeting obtained by Discourse Blog. Asked by a Times reporter why the paper wasn’t recognizing the tech union, Levien replied:
With respect to this union’s request for recognition, we do see it as different from the Wirecutter request for recognition.
We see it as different for two reasons. First, in Wirecutter’s case, it was clear that there was overwhelming support for the union. And second, um, in Wirecutter’s case, it was a group of journalists instead of a group of digital product development and tech people.
Levien’s answer continued:
There are certainly people who support the union. And I want to say there are also plenty of people who are saying they need more information for asking for more information. And we have heard directly from a number of colleagues who don’t support the unions. So that’s how I addressed the first part of that on the second difference. We’ve heard from a number of people, reasons why some tech workers don’t want to unionize given how different their work is from the other groups that are unionized.
The Times Tech Guild noted that when it went public, it had more than a simple majority of support in the unit, and it is still actively expanding that number. Per the Times‘ own stated politics, that should be enough to guarantee them instant recognition. Reading between the lines, the only reason that management would be insisting on the election is if the margin is close enough that they think they can fight it, through captive audience meetings and the usual host of union-busting tactics.
“We haven’t heard from a lot of people who are strongly against the union, but we have heard from a lot of people who have the type of questions that management is now taking advantage of,” Vicki Crosson, a member of the Tech Guild’s organizing committee, told Discourse Blog. “I wish I could say that we’re surprised, but here we are.”
As the Times itself wrote in 2007, “employers can require workers to attend anti-union presentations, and can discipline or fire those who refuse to attend.” These are known as “captive audience” meetings. The union says it was told of 5 in the first 48 hours after management first refused to recognize their unit.
Asked about this in the Thursday all-hands, Levien said that any meetings the paper had had “so far” had been with “supervisors” outside the Tech Guild bargaining unit. “The purpose of those meetings is to help those supervisors be in a position to answer the questions that are coming up from their teams and also to make sure that they understand the legal parameters, of what it means to have an election process unfold,” she added.
While it’s true that Times tech workers perform “different” work from Times journalists, it’s unclear why this is relevant from a labor standpoint. A Times spokesperson did not respond to questions from Discourse Blog.
“All workers have the same sorts of issues that they care about,” Crosson said. “As we have been talking to the existing units, we’re hearing the exact same issues. There’s differences in implementation but the problems are the same. The things that people really care about, that are having a major impact in their life, are the same.”