In April, when a group of more than 650 software engineers, product managers, and data analysts at the New York Times tried to unionize, leadership not only declined to voluntarily recognize their union, but began to hold mandatory anti-union meetings. (Management, of course, had known about the union months before it went public.)
The strangest thing about this, say Times workers, was how contrary the current approach runs to the Times' own long-held positions on union recognition—a contradiction the paper has not addressed, and seems unwilling to.
The effort at the Times is part of a broader wave of labor agitation in tech, involving software engineers in particular. At the end of April, NPR recognized a union of 64 digital staffers; last year, tech workers at Kickstarter successfully unionized despite a substantial anti-union campaign launched against them; and 20,000 Google employees walked out in protest of company culture in 2018. But the group of nearly 700 tech and digital employees at the Times would, if recognized, be the largest tech union so far. As author and tech labor expert Ben Tarnoff observes in The Making of the Tech Worker Movement, “tech matters deeply to American capitalism.” A large body of organizing tech workers, then, “should be of considerable strategic interest.”
On April 22, a week after workers publicly announced the formation of the Times Tech Guild, Times CEO Meredith Levien sent an email to staff with the subject line "A Note From Meredith: Everyone Should Have a Voice in Representation." The email broke the news to Guild members that senior leadership would not voluntarily recognize them; instead, it will probably come down to a National Labor Relations Board election, in which a simple majority of voters decides the outcome.
“We all share similar goals and vision for our future,” wrote Levien, “but we believe there is a different, and better, way to get there.”
“It’s disappointing and it’s hypocritical.”
Motherboard talked with several Times workers, and it's obvious that all of them genuinely admire the Times’s mission and leaders and their direct managers, not all of whom, they say, seem comfortable with union-avoidance tactics. However, many tire of the rhetorical contortions deployed by senior leadership to simultaneously justify union evasion and preserve, as Tarnoff put it on a phone call, “a patina of liberal respectability.”
“It’s disappointing and it’s hypocritical. There was even a New York Times editorial piece, from 2007, about recognizing unions when they have a majority of people signing cards in support,” said Nozlee Samadzadeh, a software engineer who works on Oak, the text editor used by Times journalists.
Samadzadeh echoed a point many in the Guild voice: The Times has, in the past, advocated for exactly the opposite of its current approach.
“In general, the reason for companies refusing voluntary recognition is because they want to try to dissuade people from joining,” said Goran Svorcan, a software engineer working on the Times's crossword app.
“A National Labor Relations Board vote is a routine part of the unionization process that provides an opportunity for employees to discuss the decision and make an informed choice,” Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha said in response to a detailed request for comment from Motherboard. “We’ve heard—and continue to hear—a significant number of questions and reservations from impacted employees, including from some who have signed cards, clearly signaling a need for more information. Given this feedback, we wanted to ensure all employees have the opportunity to make an informed vote on the matter.”
Another engineer, Shay Culpepper, said that someone in senior leadership told her directly that if the union is recognized without it coming to a NLRB vote, people will quit—an assertion the Times declined to address. Others spoke about so-called "captive audience" meetings, in which employees are required to hear anti-union information. (At a Times all-hands meeting, Levien said these were reserved only for those in supervisory roles, for the purpose of “understanding the legal parameters of what it means to have an election process unfurl” and answering employee questions.)
The stories these workers tell are redolent of the tried-and-true union-busting techniques used by firms all over the country. Getting employees to publicly campaign against the union, having supervisors exert gentle pressure, making claims that unions are unaffordable, and making concessions to temporarily appease workers are tactics commonly recommended by legal and consulting firms specializing in helping companies beat back organizing drives; much of what the Times is doing appears consistent with the schemes firms like these disseminate. (The Times declined to say whether it had engaged consultants or an outside firm to advise on its union-busting efforts.)
“One of the aspects of the strategy that is very familiar to me,” Tarnoff said, “is the concern that is expressed by management on behalf of the workers for the democratic will of the workplace.”
As first reported by Discourse, Levien offered a number of explanations to employees regarding leadership’s stance on the union in a May 13 all-hands meeting, audio of which was also obtained by Motherboard. In the meeting, Levien said, “I think it’s very likely that you will find that there are some people on the fence. There are people who need more information, and opening up a dialogue with colleagues is important so all perspectives can be heard. That is why we are supporting having this go to a vote.”
Levien went on to distinguish the Guild from the Wirecutter union, which was voluntarily recognized by Times leadership within a day of publicly announcing two years ago. “In Wirecutter’s case, it was a group of journalists instead of a group of digital product development and tech people,” she said. In the meeting, Levien read and answered two questions submitted by Times staff; while one criticized management, the other opposed the union.
The first question Levien read came from Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña, confronting management on its refusal to voluntarily recognize. “The Times has editorialized in favor of changing the law to make such recognition automatic. And yet, this year, when a solid majority of NYT tech workers signed on to form a union, the company refused to recognize the union," the question went. "How is this anything but rank hypocrisy on your part? And do you have any idea of the hostile, even offensive, message you’re sending to your very large workforce?”
Levien’s response hit the points one might expect, spotlighting the voice of detractors and emphasizing that existing support comes from the organizers themselves. “We understand that there are some employees, particularly those who are organizing the effort, who are disappointed by our decision to let this go to a vote. But we are confident that it’s the right decision for our employees, and for their teams, and for their departments,” she said.
“How is this anything but rank hypocrisy on your part?”
This messaging has since been replicated in other emails from department heads to staff addressing the union, “particularly those who are organizing the effort.”
(According to Guild members, support for the union outweighs opposition. Svorcan said that a solid majority of eligible union voters have already signed cards, and that the number is growing. “I think the way we phrased it is, ‘If it were a presidential election, it would be a landslide,'” Svorcan said.)
The second question came from an unnamed employee interested in learning about ways to stop the union. “We’ve had a question from an employee who is not in favor of the union.” Levien said. “So I’ll take a moment to address that. And, as I did with Richard’s question, I’m going to read it out verbatim: ‘What actions can employees who are opposed to the union take to make their voices heard?’” (Levien assured listeners the question was “not an anti-union tactic from management.”)
While some on the machine- learning team want the power to stand up to unethical algorithms, the union more generally is pushing for better healthcare, pay equity, career development, and hiring diversity. Culpepper, a software engineer working in data visualization, told Motherboard she’s also interested in improved accessibility for those using screen readers.
“We don’t really have anyone focusing on that right now. We’ve asked for it for a long time and it just ends up being sort of ad hoc.”
At the Times, it appears senior leadership plans to take advantage of the opportunities that are afforded to employers in a NLRB election. It will try to whittle away union support with pressure campaigns and conciliatory gestures. Then there are the election day logistics problems of remote work and mail-in ballots. Instead of ceding bargaining power to the nearly 700 tech workers, senior leadership is spending millions on concessions, rolling out improved career-development initiatives, and buying hundreds of new employee laptops.
“They could literally give us everything we’re asking for, but it’s still not equal bargaining power. It’s not a democracy,” Culpepper said.
For now, it’s clear Times leaders will continue to perform a balancing act — one Republican agricultural executives in Iowa needn’t bother with — in which they simultaneously attempt to maintain a time-honored image of progressivism and stop a worker’s movement. Perhaps it will work. Why would they risk the New York Times brand if they don’t think they can win?