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The New York Times Won’t Stop Gaslighting Its Unionizing Workers

Audio obtained by Discourse Blog shows the paper's CEO trying to blame the union for a recent breakdown in talks. Sources say the truth is just the opposite.

The New York Times App, which Tech Guild employees build.
Jack Crosbie

The New York Times held an all-hands meeting this morning, one day after over 300 members of its tech workforce walked off the job. During the meeting, Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien faced a “package” of questions about the company’s relationship with the fledgling New York Times Tech Guild, which maintains that the Times‘ management has committed several specific “unfair labor practices” (ULPs) and derailed negotiations by seeking to severely limit the size of the union’s bargaining unit.

In audio provided to Discourse Blog by a source who was present at the meeting, Kopit Levien responded to these questions by both calling the Tech Guild “unprecedented” and somehow different from the other 10 unions that represent Times‘ employees, and by blaming the breakdown of negotiations on what she described as the union’s “unusual tactics.”

“We were a little disappointed in the union’s decision to resort to a strike yesterday,” Kopit Levien—who has a history of speaking against the union effort in staff meetings—said. “That’s a highly unusual tactic just as the NLRB process is getting underway, and unusual when done instead of engaging in a dialogue to resolve our differences. The steps that the company is taking now, which are attempting to work with the union to define the appropriate scope of the unit, are procedural, they are legal, and they are typical, and we believe that constructive dialogue to reach agreements is the best way to move this process along efficiently and fairly.”

Let’s break this down. Kopit Levien’s general point is that the Times management is attempting to respond to the union in good faith and proceed with a standard National Labor Relations Board election process, but that the union is, essentially, throwing a fit and not engaging in constructive “dialogue.”

According to sources in the News Guild and the Times Tech Guild, the truth is, well, basically the opposite. Here is a rough timeline of events, per these sources.

According to Nora Keller, an associate product manager at the Times and member of the Tech Guild’s organizing committee, the union sought early on in the process to hold what’s known as an “AAA election” — an online vote by an impartial third party that then certifies the result to the NLRB, but is generally much faster than going through the entire NLRB election process, which is often very long.

Keller says that the Tech Guild approached management to discuss their proposed unit size, which included project managers, data analysts, assistants, engineers and other roles. About 70 percent of this roughly 600-person proposed unit, which would be over 600 people, had indicated that they would like a AAA election and that they would vote in favor of unionizing.

Times management declined this meeting, Keller says, and demanded a full NLRB election. The union then proceeded to the NLRB process, filing their official proposal for the unit with the NLRB on July 30. NLRB rules give management 8 business days to respond, the deadline for which was today.

On Monday of this week, Keller and the News Guild both confirmed, Proskauer Rose attorney Michael Lebowich, who represents Times management, called News Guild lawyer Benjamin Dictor and informed him that management would only agree to a bargaining unit that included engineers, cutting the unit by approximately a third, or over 200 people, according to Keller.

On Tuesday, News Guild reps, Lebowich’s team, and Tech Guild unit representatives including Keller had an official pre-hearing conference call with the NLRB to see if they could come to an agreement. Keller and the Tech Guild presented their proposal for the bargaining unit and the arguments for it, which were brushed off by Lebowich, who stuck to his initial ultimatum that the bargaining unit be engineers only.

On Wednesday, the Tech Guild walked out. Today, the Times filed its proposal for the bargaining unit to the NLRB, which only included engineers.

“It’s like they keep sending out these goalposts for us to meet and we keep like then rising to the things that they set and then meanwhile the whole time they’re refusing to engage with us in good faith,” Keller told Discourse Blog.

In response to a request for comment, the Times pointed Discourse Blog to a statement it issued yesterday about the Tech Guild walkout. You can read that statement here.

All of this, as we noted yesterday, has an effect of slowing down the process. Times management delivered what is essentially an ultimatum on what they want the bargaining unit to be, and has refused several opportunities to negotiate over that ultimatum. In official communications, they’ve blamed the union for the breakdown in these talks, but you can decide for yourself which side clammed up first.

The strategy from the Times and their law firm Proskauer Rose is unchanged: take a hard line, drag it out as long as possible, hope that you can whittle down the unit as much as possible. Earlier today, The Daily Beast reported that that was exactly what the Times’s strategy was, based on a private strategy email Lebowich accidentally sent to a News Guild organizer. In the end, the NLRB will decide the size of the unit at a hearing. Most of the members I’ve talked to so far are confident they’ll win, and confident that they’ll win an eventual election. The Times has claimed all along that they’ll respect the result. It’s just a pity they don’t seem to have any of that respect for their actual employees along the way.