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This post was originally published at Defector on December 17, 2021.
The Wirecutter Union announced this week that they’ve reached a contract deal with the management of the New York Times:
The agreement, according to the union’s threaded tweets, includes immediate pay increases, a salary floor, guaranteed annual raises, and a host of other provisions related to hiring, workplace protections, and benefits. It’s a win for the union, which went on strike around the Thanksgiving holiday—leaving managers to run it without the people who do its actual work during what’s typically one of the site’s busiest and most important times of year. The union then filed a labor grievance with the National Labor Relations Board after Times management retaliated by withholding the holiday pay to which the striking workers were entitled.
The order and meaning of events is vital, here. As the embedded tweet up there emphasizes, the union engaged in good-faith negotiation with management over its reasonable and justified demands for two years, and got this in return, back in mid-November:
That is to say, in return for two years of patience and faith they got a negotiating partner so arrogant, so contemptuous, so certain of eventual victory, that it felt secure in daring the company’s workers to fuck off during the company’s peak season for business.
Management had every reason to feel confident the union would fold. The Times is the richest, most prestigious, and most powerful organ in print media; here it was going against the relatively small bargaining unit of a relatively small and un-prestigious subsidiary property. Working journalists and bloggers, for their part, are chronically underpaid relative to the cost of living in the major media markets in which they’re generally required to reside. They often can’t really afford to live with the paychecks they do get, to say nothing of forgoing those during a protracted work stoppage. On top of that, navigating a shriveling industry means spending every single minute facing the existential dread of knowing the next media job they leave or lose very well may be the last one they’ll ever find. The bosses have no shortage of leverage in these situations, is what I’m saying.
Then Wirecutter Union went on strike for five days, and got big pay raises. The point here is not to bag on the Wirecutter Union’s willingness to negotiate before striking—the threshold for persuading workers to take such a step is understandably sky-high; its members are heroes, and I want to hug every one of them—but to suggest something about the relative efficacy of two approaches to dealing with management. I don’t think it’s an accident or a coincidence that Wirecutter’s workers got a better deal so soon after removing “…and we’ll continue showing up to work for you day after day even if you don’t give it to us” from the back half of their demands. The moral of this story is: What works isn’t just asking for something, or threatening something, or making public your ongoing dissatisfaction with something; what works is doing something.
American workers have spent these horrible pandemic months showing that they’re increasingly alert both to the fundamentally shitty terms of work in this society—to be clear, one in which workers in an Illinois Amazon warehouse and in a Kentucky candle factory died this week because their bosses wouldn’t allow them to seek safety during a tornado—and to their power to reject those terms. Millions have quit their jobs; workers in fields as disparate as music and tennis have taken big steps toward organization; unionized workers have gone on strike across a host of industries. Amid all this, maybe you’ve felt an impulse to—as the Wirecutter Union admonishes at the end of the thread of tweets laying out the spoils of its victory over Times management—”Unionize your workplace! Come together & demand better.” That’s good, and righteous; I recommend you do it.
But if the Wirecutter Union’s victory proves anything, fortifies any idea, maybe it isn’t just that it’s good to have a union, or righteous to demand better from the bosses. It’s in the next part of that admonishment from the triumphant union: “Take action to win a contract you deserve. When we fight, we win.”