- Interview by
- Aaron Petcoff
In April, a majority of the approximately seven hundred technology workers at the New York Times — including programmers, designers, and project managers — announced the formation of a union, the New York Times Tech Guild. Management rejected their petition for voluntary recognition almost immediately. But if they do win recognition, the Times Tech Guild will be the largest union representing tech workers with collective bargaining rights in the United States.
Beginning with a successful union election at Kickstarter at the beginning of 2020, the labor movement has found careful footing in a sector that has generally dodged its efforts. While the computer and software industries are among the most profitable sectors of the US economy, unions have virtually no presence in them. A recent survey of tech workers, however, found that approximately half of the respondents were interested in joining a union.
I met with Angie Kim, a software engineer, and Bon Champion, a product designer, of the Times Tech Guild’s organizing committee in July to talk about their campaign. We discussed the challenges they’ve faced in building majority support for their union, the reaction of their employer, and how their campaign fits into a broader landscape of the labor movement across technology and media. Since our conversation, the Times Tech Guild has announced they’ve filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.
Could you describe for readers what your relationship to the labor movement was like before your involvement in the New York Times Tech Guild?
Growing up, I didn’t know that much about unions. I feel like the biggest thing that was going on that I was aware of was teachers going on strike. And that almost made unions seem bad, because teachers were stopping kids from going to school.
For my last college semester in the spring, my final paper that I wrote was on tech-worker organizing. My interest was partly spurred by a pamphlet by Ben Tarnoff called The Making of the Tech Workers’ Movement. Shortly after, the NYC-DSA Tech Action Working Group and the Tech Workers Coalition held a virtual panel on the same topic. I came out of that meeting thinking, “I really hope someday I can be a part of this.”
I didn’t hear anything about the union campaign going on during my first few months at the Times. But after ranting to one of my coworkers, they told me, “If this is something you’re interested in working on, there are other people at the Times who are trying to change things.”
I was like [claps] I hear it! I recognized that this was an organizing conversation. After that, I learned more about the union effort. I’ve been part of the union organizing committee since about October.
I formed a lot of my opinions about labor in school. The Hollywood writers’ strike in 2019 and early efforts to organize digital media led me to this idea that the labor movement is something that I should pay attention to. But the Kickstarter union brought it to my front door. I saw that the labor movement was something I could directly participate in and not just passively be supportive of.
I didn’t become aware of the union effort at the Times until January of this year. If we had been working in the building, I’m certain I would’ve found out earlier. But because everybody is working remotely, people are incredibly isolated from one another based on their function or the teams they work on — these are really the only people you’re talking to. The bulk of our bargaining unit is software engineers, so as it was, product design in general didn’t get super involved until pretty late.
One day, a fellow designer who was involved in the effort scheduled an impromptu coffee with me. They gave me the full spiel and I was immediately on board. My involvement began by phone-banking unit members during the final stretch of organizing before announcing our campaign publicly. I was able to get a few people to attend some meetings and even got one person to sign a union card. By that point someone told me, “We need you on our organizing committee.” So I joined.
I was actually one of the last people to join the organizing committee before we went public. We’ve had more people join after, but I feel like I kind of made it onto a train just as it was leaving the station. I don’t think I realized how much of a time commitment it was going to be. This has been at least 50 percent of what I’ve been thinking and living and breathing ever since. But I’m glad I did it.
What you said, Bon, raises a question I want to ask about one-on-ones.
At a high level, the one-on-one is really simple. We’re talking about having a direct conversation with a coworker about the workplace. Maybe you’re learning about their concerns or asking them to get involved or support your campaign. This is the foundation of any successful organizing effort.
In practice, though, these conversations can be challenging. Just based on anecdotes I’ve heard talking to new organizers — and this was my own experience when I worked at the New Yorker, as well — getting started with one-on-ones can be difficult.
What was it like for you all to begin having these conversations with your coworkers?
When I began phone banking, I was able to work with my own existing connections in my department, since that was a part of the workplace that wasn’t as hooked into what was going on. I know other organizers who’ve had to reach out to people who they had no prior existing relationship with.
It was intimidating at first. But it’s also given me a chance to reengage with people that I would’ve been passing in the office or sitting down with for lunch. These are the kinds of connections you miss out on when everything is done over Slack or Google Meet, and every interaction is predetermined by work. Now we have a reason to talk to people about work, but also about our personal lives or other things that have nothing to do with the task at hand.
It’s been really energizing. It reminded me of what’s been lost in the move to just working at home. And now that the weather has changed, there’s a lot more opportunity to have these kinds of conversations in person with coworkers that live near you. That’s been really amazing.
There’s some barriers you have to hit. It’s weird having to ask people for their phone numbers. There’s a line between a personal friend and a stranger that you kind of have to navigate here. But we’re all figuring this out together.
It’s funny to hear you say that we’re all navigating having to figure out asking people for their phone numbers. I’ll literally just DM someone I’ve never talked to and say, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something, could I get your phone number?” or “Do you have fifteen minutes to meet on Google Meet?”
Maybe part of it is that I have some experience doing one-on-ones just through political involvement in high school and college.
The thing I love about working at the New York Times is that everyone is really friendly and happy to talk. I think that’s a spirit shared among most of my coworkers. So I don’t know if anybody’s been particularly taken aback by me just reaching out. I think there’ve been times when I’ve tried to be sneaky about it and it doesn’t work.
Angie, you mentioned in an interview published last May that you’ve “sometimes felt insecure . . . that as a tech worker, the bread-and-butter issues aren’t so important.” You’re “not fighting for a living wage, for example.”
That is something that comes up a lot in the discussion about organizing tech workers. If you look through any thread on Hacker News about unions in the tech industry, you’re virtually guaranteed to find a handful of comments along the lines of, “Why do tech workers need a union? We’re well paid.”
I think there’s some general confusion out there that leads people — maybe for white-collar workers or “professionals” in particular — to think that unions are only for bargaining over money and health care. There’s no real understanding of their having a broader purpose or collective bargaining over a wider set of issues.
Have you faced this kind of confusion during conversation with your coworkers? How did you respond?
A lot of the designers I’ve spoken with initially wondered if the union was just going to be a bunch of well-paid engineers — better paid than designers, generally — asking for more money. But if engineers were only in it for more money, there’s much easier ways to go about doing that than organizing a union of several hundred people to hold an election.
A lot of the conversations we have in one-on-ones and our union meetings are generally not about salary or benefits. It’s about addressing inequities. One of the things that’s been universal in the conversations I’ve had has been the issue of pay equity and pay transparency, rather than more pay. We’ve started a salary sharing spreadsheet within the union channels. It’s an unofficial way of achieving pay transparency, but we’ve already seen clear inequities, where women and people of color aren’t paid or promoted at the same rates [as their white colleagues]. The newsroom union has found similar results through their studies.
The union will also allow us to codify a lot of the benefits we already enjoy in our contract. We’re coming out of a four-year boom period for the New York Times. But we don’t know what the next four years will look like for the company or for its workers.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in general in my career, but especially at the Times. I’ve had five managers in my five years here. All of them have been excellent. But this is not a universal experience at the Times. And it’s entirely random whether you have a really good and positive relationship with your manager or a negative one. I would love it if I could feel confident when I recommend that someone come work at the Times that, regardless of what team they work on, they’d have an experience similar to mine. And there’s no way to ensure that without codifying the things that I enjoy into a contract.
That’s what I think about. It’s less about my personal gain than what the union can do for all of us. That includes all my colleagues at the New York Times, as well as people working in tech at large. I think there’s a lot we can do that’s not just about our bottom line or our own personal gain.
But you do have something personal at stake in this. Just citing the example you gave about managers, for instance. You’ve been fortunate to have good managers, but obviously that shouldn’t be left up to luck.
Absolutely. No doubt about that.
Tech workers at the Times aren’t there because they want to make a tech-worker salary. There’s usually some other motivation that draws someone to work here. I don’t necessarily think that everyone stans the New York Times, but I do think that the type of person who works here chose to work here instead of one of the big tech companies, where they could make probably twice or even three times as much. So it’s not about the money.
I think forming a tech-workers union signals that everyone should be organized, even tech workers who are relatively well paid and have good benefits. Ultimately, A. G. Sulzberger has way more control than anyone does on their own, even a software engineer.
That brings something to mind. There’s an enormous gap between the pay and benefits given to tech workers between the New York Times, let’s say, and a more traditional software company. So I do think that media companies get away with something by paying a worker up to $30,000 or $40,000 less than they’d make in another industry.
I have such a bone to pick with that. During an all-company meeting, management was asked why they refused to recognize the union. Their response was more or less that tech workers are different. But we’re only different when it benefits them.
Similar statements were made against forming a union at Kickstarter. If you recall, a memo was circulated there saying that unions are great, just not for tech workers.
There’s never been a clarification over how tech workers are substantially different. There are just vague statements. Like, occasionally they’ll talk about “flexibility.”
“Flexibility” is on our bingo card.
Do they believe the newsroom isn’t “flexible”?
Exactly, there’s no more flexible part of the company than the newsroom. They’re able to respond to events down to the second. This is something that we highlight a lot. The union is all of us. We’re not interested in bargaining a contract that is going to make it harder to do our jobs or whatever.
What I find so frustrating about management’s claim that a union would harm flexibility is that we don’t have a contract yet. In fact, there’s no real precedent for our contract. They don’t know what it will say any more than we do.
Let’s talk about the more immediate confrontation with management. You all petitioned for voluntary recognition in April. Management rejected your petition and said they’d rather take it to an election. This happened in spite of the Times management having voluntarily recognized a union at Wirecutter, not to mention having one of the oldest union newsrooms in the industry. In fact, the Times editorial board has publicly supported card check for union certification in the past.
Were you all surprised by management’s response? And given the precedents already set for voluntary recognition and union representation at the Times, why do you think they’re opposing it now for your unit?
Honestly, I was surprised. Given everything you said, all the precedents like voluntarily recognizing Wirecutter. I think our campaign was prepared for voluntary recognition. We had a pretty solid plan. I was pretty taken aback by the position they took, which happened swiftly, to not recognize us. The only reason I could see for them to not recognize us is that they think it might cost them a lot of money to have some of its highest-paid employees under a union contract, to have salary floors, and better benefits in general.
I hesitate to say that it’s because they think they can win. A majority has already signed cards saying that they want to join this union. I think it’s a power play on their part to try and sow doubt by saying that they’re hearing people say they’re against the union. But I don’t think that’s the truth. We know how many people are supportive of the union.
I was surprised as well, if for no other reason than they wouldn’t want the heat. We have a pretty active and engaged readership. We know that people are pretty upset about this. We put out a public petition after submitting our unfair labor practice complaint and got thousands of signatures from subscribers and online readers. That’s something management brought on themselves. I never thought they’d want to go down this path.
I think there’s two reasons they decided to oppose the union. One is an acknowledgement of the power of a tech workers’ union of our size. We’d not only make our own department stronger but the newsroom as well. There’s a lot of competition to hire new tech workers, and the Times doesn’t offer the best pay. We are difficult to replace, and that gives us some sway. I think that the choice to not voluntarily recognize our unit is an acknowledgement of that power. I don’t think they’re wrong. I think we would have a lot of power.
The other thing — and this is more speculative — is the return to office. They’re currently making decisions about returning to the office behind closed doors. The only input from workers has been a survey that management interpreted themselves. That’s the way they’d like to make decisions at this company. In that case, if the union loses the election, that’s a win for them. But in case the union wins, we’ve already begun returning to the office without any chance to negotiate the terms.
Again, this is all based on my own speculation. But certainly the more time they have to act unilaterally, the better it is for them.
Exactly. That would — will — change with a union.
I think this shows that, even though the Times has a reputation as a liberal publication, and a person might think that management has at least a slightly favorable attitude toward labor, it’s still a profit-seeking company.
The newsroom is responsible for the primary product of the Times, but there’s an entirely separate business side to the organization. That’s the side making these decisions. It’s not the newsroom calling the shots. When we think of the New York Times’ leadership, it’s not a writer or editor making that decision — it’s the chief executive officer.
I want to ask about the employer’s claims. We’ve already talked about their argument that a union would impose undue constraints on how the workplace operates. They also said that they’ve been approached by people who are concerned about how a union might affect them or their careers.
I’m curious how management’s opposition has affected your colleagues. What have the more challenging conversations been like with your coworkers who’ve been more hesitant to support the union?
A contract would enforce some constraints. There’s no getting around that. But, like I said earlier, the constraints would be in the interest of greater fairness. Things like pay floors or stipulations to encourage greater hiring of people underrepresented in journalism, like the New Yorker Union recently won in its contract.
There will be people who will not come 100 percent in support of our effort. It’s not our job as organizers to insist that everyone agrees with us. Our work is to consider people’s concerns, work with them, and to organize around the overall concerns of the entire workforce and build a contract around that. It’s not to get everyone on the same page about every specific issue.
We’re made stronger by these conversations with people who are more hesitant about the union, or want to learn more, or maybe had some negative experience with a union in the past. Our union’s going to be all these people, with all these experiences, and can be built around that. Let’s make the best version of our union.
This was something I wasn’t entirely prepared for when I joined the organizing committee. But we all learn from each other’s experience and conversations. We’ve gotten a lot of helpful input from the people at the NewsGuild and the Times newsroom union based on their experience as well.
How valuable has the NewsGuild-CWA been for you all on your campaign?
I can only speak to the later phases of our campaign after I got involved, but I don’t think the contributions of the NewsGuild can be understated. We talk a lot about how we’d be the largest tech union in the country, and how little precedent there is for what we’re doing, but I’m so thankful that we’re not actually building this thing from scratch. We’ve benefitted from their insight on past campaigns, their knowledge of structures and strategies, and simply all they’ve learned from decades of trial and error.
And through it all, our organizers and our colleagues at the NewsGuild have never lost sight of the fact that this is our union, made up of us and our coworkers. If we want to deviate from an existing plan or strategy, we talk about it, we deliberate, and we do it.
News and media companies have been radically transformed over the past year as their businesses became recentered around the web and technology. I think the most notorious example of this was when Tribune Publishing briefly rebranded itself as “tronc” in 2016 —
That’s fucking horrible.
I’m curious if you think the shift in media toward a more tech-centered business model gives tech workers more potential power?
I think the push to treat the Times as a tech company is very prevalent. For example, hiring people from Facebook and Netflix to come into senior leadership. Management’s vision is clearly to take the methods of Silicon Valley tech culture and to bring that to the Times.
That’s why it’s more important than ever for us to be organized. If the trend is for companies to publish more clickbait, to optimize for more social media engagement, etc., I think it’s urgent to have the noneditorial workers organized.