A Fight Over Union Democracy at The New York Times

An analysis by the Payday Report of federal Department of Labor financial records reveals that the New York Times union members may have good reason to worry about financial transparency and union democracy. (Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, whose reporting took down Harvey Weinstein and helped launch a wave of #MeToo reporting on workplace sexual misconduct, were attacked and called “scabs” along with 100 of their New York Times colleagues, for signing a letter that asked the New York NewsGuild to be more transparent. 

For years, the New York NewsGuild refused to provide its membership with an annual budget, keeping the budget process largely shrouded in secrecy. But recently, with the union asking for a dues increase to cover deficit spending, reporters like Kantor and Twohey wanted the union to be more transparent about financials. 

The reporters wrote in the letter: “A top Guild official recently told us the Guild never writes a budget that extends more than one quarter ahead and that there is no ‘reliable way to predict’ future revenues and costs. That is an alarming response. No business looking to expand would simply shrug its collective shoulders and say: ‘Revenues? Costs? Sorry, no real idea…’

The backlash from many of the young leaders of the digital media unionization movement was quick and ferocious; they favored the dues increase that union leadership said would pay for new organizing. 

“These are people who don’t give a shit about actually helping other people,” Alex Shephard, the young unit chair at The New Republic, told The Daily Beast. “It’s the most Times-y form of liberalism you can think of. These people don’t have any sense of solidarity with their colleagues.”

Since 2015, more than 50 digital media union outlets have been organized, and with revenue and jobs shrinking in the news industry, many young reporters have become active in organizing union shops in previously non-union digital media outlets. 

At the same time, reporters at longer-unionized NewsGuild outlets like The New York Times, Reuters, and The Washington Post have also become more active in their existing unions and are starting to ask that their unions be more responsive and democratic. 

But the attack on New York Times reporters within the NewsGuild’s largest chapter in New York City speaks to a troubling trend of the top-down leadership of the nation’s largest journalist union attacking critics who are pushing for more transparency — on everything from the cover-up of sexual misconduct in the leadership of the NewsGuild to retaliating against local NewsGuild leaders for disagreeing with the organizing approach of the national NewsGuild. 

The issue now with budget transparency has been of vital importance for some time as the New York NewsGuild has run down its reserve funds, critical in the event of a strike or mass layoff. 

As of last year, the New York NewsGuild, which has a $5 million budget, ran a $1.5 million deficit as they competed with their rival the Writers Guild to organize members in the rapidly unionizing digital media sector. 

And while the New York NewsGuild currently has 4,246 members as of October of 2020 up from 2,631 members in 2017, according to their Department of Labor filings, the vast majority of these new members do not currently have union contracts, and under NewsGuild rules, aren’t asked to pay union dues until they first get a contract. 

To meet their budget deficit, the New York NewsGuild depleted 25% of its reserve fund in the last year alone. (Since 2016, the NewsGuild reserves have been depleted from $11 million in 2016 to $5 million.)  

Then, in addition to depleting its reserve funds, the New York NewsGuild leadership recently asked reporters at unionized outlets with established union contracts outlets like The New York Times and Reuters to pay $500 to $1,000 a year more in dues. 

The dues increase is up for a vote with the New York NewsGuild membership and is set to take place from July 16 to August 16. 

“We understand that a dues increase is not insignificant, but we believe that it is a reasonable investment,” wrote a group of NewsGuild members in favor of the dues increase. “The recent expansion has been rapid and impressive. It won’t last forever. Now is the time to take advantage of the momentum that our union is building.” 

In contrast, a concerned group of NewsGuild members at the New York Times, who make up more than half of the New York NewsGuild’s dues-paying membership, began raising questions about how the money would be used. They were unable to get answers to basic questions, and thus many began to advocate a “no vote” until the union was willing to be financially transparent. 

They immediately began to be attacked by some of the leading voices of the digital media unionization, including Hamilton Nolan who started the union drive at Gawker in 2015 and whom many credit for helping kick off the digital media unionization movement. 

“There are two reasons to organize enthusiastic industries like media *as fast as possible.* 1) The moral imperative to help people. 2) Having tons of workers ready willing and able to unionize is not the norm and unions need to take advantage of it, ‘Slowing down’ is not savvy,” wrote Nolan to his 48,000 Twitter followers. 

But some veteran NewsGuild activists at the New York Times worry that these attacks could splinter the union at a critical moment for the Times

“This has been portrayed in very unfortunate terms by some of the Guild, and I think, fair to say, egged on by the leadership that this is the wealthy New York Times not being willing to take care of our proletarian brothers and sisters; that we want to toss them to the side that we’re just looking out for ourselves. It couldn’t be further from the truth,” New York Times reporter Michael Powell, a longtime activist in the NewsGuild, told Payday Report

Powell said that union members at the Times, whose members contribute more than half of the budget at the New York NewsGuild, were shocked by the attacks from union members who are from the more recently organized digital media shops. 

Indeed, many of the signers of the letter are currently active in the ongoing contract struggle at the Times and active in the ongoing effort to unionize more than 700 tech workers there. 

Nick Confessore, another NewsGuild union activist, who is on the “Contract Action Team” at the Times, wrote to NewsGuild members in a mass email that he wasn’t opposed to a dues increase; just that without financial transparency, voting for the current proposed dues increases would continue allowing the NewsGuild to operate without being transparent. 

“Most of us, including me, are prepared to pay significantly higher dues proposed by the [Executive Committee] to fund these fights,” wrote Confessore. “But we want assurances from our union will not be further overextended – especially as we negotiate a contract covering a third of its members, at the Times, and seek to organize Times Tech, which would be the union’s biggest organizing victory in recent memory.” 

Still, instead of engaging with the concerns about union democracy and financial transparency raised by New York Times union members, many newer union members took to Twitter to bash the Times reporters’ concerns.  

“This is some very embarrassing shit,” wrote recently unionized Law 360 staffer Ryan Boysen in response to the letter from the Times. “Everyone who signed this needs to get their mind right. baby logic, childsightedness and me me outlook. just pathetic.” 

Many Times staffers have said they worry these nasty attacks could make their union look weak and isolated in the midst of a contentious contract struggle when they will need to rally public support. 

“To raise it in the middle of our own negotiations, and therefore to give the appearance of a unit that’s kind of at war — that’s not the look you want to show to management,” said Powell. “It guarantees that you are going to weaken your hand.” 

Excessive Outside Counsel & Staff Compensation Spending

An analysis by the Payday Report of federal Department of Labor financial records reveals that the New York Times union members may have good reason to worry about financial transparency and union democracy. 

In 2020 alone, the union spent $620,040 on outside legal costs instead of hiring a much cheaper in-house counsel — a nearly doubling of the $335,564 spent by the New York NewsGuild in 2019. Even pro-union labor law experts say that kind of union spending on outside legal counsel is excessive for a local union of only 4,200 members. 

The recent debate over financial transparency within the New York NewsGuild is the latest in a series of high-profile incidents that raise questions about the commitment to union democracy from a new generation of union leadership that has taken over the union in the wake of the digital media unionization movement. 

When running for the New York NewsGuild Secretary-Treasurer in 2019, and claiming to be a reform-oriented candidate, Anthony Napoli blasted the union’s previous administration for overspending on unnecessary costs. 

“The expenses of our local — under the current administration — have grown exponentially over the past three years,” wrote Napoli in his candidate statement. “In large part, that’s because we’ve grown: We’ve added members and staff. But, under the incumbent, the spending hasn’t been strategic – it’s been indulgent.” 

Napoli promised that if elected he would make it a priority to “create clear and transparent communication channels regarding our [union’s] financial health.” 

However, when asked to present a long-term budget at a recent town hall of 200 New York Times union members this spring, Napoli said “We don’t put that budget down on paper.” 

New York NewsGuild President Susan DeCarava has likewise repeatedly stressed that the union doesn’t do its budget more than a year and a half in advance due to the unpredictably of layoffs affecting the union’s loss of revenues.

However, according to an analysis of online federal filings by the New York NewsGuild with the Department of Labor, New York NewsGuild revenue has actually increased to $472,328 during the pandemic in 2020. 

Furthermore, many unions in layoff-heavy industries often prepare yearly budgets and financial projections so that their members can manage and with the few resources that these unions have. 

Writing a memo to NewsGuild members, Confessore pointed out (with analysis done by NYT reporter Edmund Lee) that in 2016 “the average Guild employee cost its members $147,512 in payroll. In 2020, that number was $172,716.” 

Organizations like Labor Notes, where several top New York NewsGuild staffers were trained and its current Mobilizing Director Chris Brooks was previously employed, have routinely called for salary caps on union staff and have labeled high salaries as a “drag on organizing.”

However, the young professional union staffers running the NewsGuild, a majority who, based on their bios, have never worked in newsrooms — are less eager to cut their own salaries now that they are in charge, and less willing to practice the ideals of union democracy and transparency. 

Much of the increase in union revenue went to pay for the earlier mentioned expensive outside legal counsel; $335, 564 in 2019 versus $620, 040 in 2020. 

“How the heck do they even have access to that much money?” asked Mike Duff, University of Wyoming professor of labor law. “Because typically, these are scarce resources.”

Before becoming a labor lawyer, Duff worked for 12 years as a baggage handler and Black shop steward in Teamsters at the Philadelphia Airport and knows that many union lawyers are notorious for overcharging unions. 

Many unions prefer  — for organizing and especially cost-savings reasons — to hire their own in-house counsel to save money rather than outside counsel. Additionally, many unions find that having outside counsel that doesn’t bill by the hour allows members to simply call up the union’s counsel and get more support and advice. 

Duff says it’s suspicious that the union, which has increased its legal fees so dramatically, has been unwilling to open their books. 

Not only is the NewsGuild relying on outside counsel for legal matters, but also using outside legal counsel heavily in contract bargaining; tasks that many unions assign to union representatives or rank-and-file union leaders to do. 

They said they spent $600,000, on legal fees, that sounds like a hell of a lot of money,” Duff said. “If they spend that much money, and then jack your dues up, you should be in a position to be able to question them about it, and get some kind of accounting as to what the hell’s going on. And if you can’t, then something is wrong.” 

Both the New York NewsGuild and its counsel, Benjamin Dictor of Eisner, Dictor & Lamarid, did not respond to requests for comment despite being given a week to do so.  Mr. Dictor’s billing of the NewsGuild as well as other unions was so prolific that the 30-something labor lawyer was recently promoted to partner at the firm in the past year.

Union Democracy Fights Break Out Around the NewsGuild

The fight for union democracy is part of a growing trend of media workers, who have become more organized in recent years, not just asking to unionize, but asking their unions to be truly democratic and commit to ideals of transparency as journalists. 

In early June, Chicago Tribune reporters raised questions about union democracy and voting procedures in joint national bargaining. The Chicago Tribune reporters had different ideas of how to handle negotiations and objected to the way internal voting was handled as part of joint national pattern bargaining. 

After Chicago Tribune NewsGuild leadership objected, national NewsGuild leadership decided to pull a bargaining representative from severance bargaining at the last second, leaving the Chicago Tribune in a desperate situation. 

Chicago Tribune NewsGuild President Gregory Pratt sent a widely forwarded email to scores of reporters and NewsGuild activists blasting the union for retaliating against the Chicago Tribune NewsGuild for raising union democracy concerns. 

“We have a situation in Chicago that should alarm each of you, even if you aren’t in agreement with our current position,” wrote Gregory Pratt in an email obtained by Payday Report. “The guild has abandoned us and left us without representation at the bargaining table to punish us for a local decision.” 

Elsewhere, members have complained that the national NewsGuild, under the leadership of 33-year-old President Jon Schleuss, has failed to be transparent on important matters affecting the union’s health. 

Last September, Payday Report revealed in reporting that was later confirmed independently by the New York Times’ Ben Smith, that newly elected NewsGuild President Schleuss had direct knowledge of sexual assault and sexual preying on young interns by 69-year old Pittsburgh NewsGuild President Michael Fuoco, but yet he hesitated to remove Fuoco until he was publicly exposed. 

Following coverage by The New York Times in December, NewsGuild leadership promised to do an independent third-party investigation by an outside law firm to determine what the NewsGuild leadership knew about sexual misconduct in its leadership ranks. 

However, six months later, no one has been interviewed for any such investigation and the NewsGuild is refusing to answer what happened to its promise of a third-party investigation. 

A Shut Down of Debate Over Union Finances

Many members at the New York NewsGuild hoped that the union could use the dues discussion to discuss alternative strategies for filling the budget hole. 

With over a thousand new members in shops without first contracts, some union activists hoped that asking members without a first contract to pay voluntary dues, could help offset the burden of deficits plaguing the union. Some union organizers indeed encourage members to start paying half-dues prior to a first contract to create a sense of ownership of the union. 

New York NewsGuild leadership, though, which promised new members that they wouldn’t pay dues, refused to entertain the idea. However, they did tell members that haven’t won a first contract that they would be able to vote on raising the dues of staff at the New York Times

When the question was raised in a recent online town hall, many supporters of the New York NewsGuild leadership took to the online town hall’s comment thread to blast the reporters raising concerns about financial transparency and union democracy.  

While some NewsGuild activists apologized in private to the Times reporters, including New Republic unit chair Alex Shephard, the damage was already done. 

“The mask slipped,” wrote Confessore about Shephard. “Unfortunately, some of your fellow Guild members pushing for dues increases really do hate you. They think Times people as useless bougie squishes. They don’t care what kind of union that you want. They will demand more of your paycheck and insult you while you do it.” 

Some within the New York Times have even floated the idea of leaving the New York NewsGuild and forming their own local union just for Times reporters like reporters at the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones, who have their own NewsGuild local. 

With the 1300 members of the New York Times union in intense contract negotiations and a massive effort to unionize 700 tech workers at the Times, many hope that the rift between the membership can be healed. 

If it’s not, they worry that the rift exposed in the recent debate over budget transparency and dues increase could rip the union apart. 

“[NewsGuild leadership] has very much engendered an ‘Us against Them’ kind of politics within the union,” Powell said. “It’s destructive of union solidarity.” 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
A protege of the late Bill Greider, Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter who covered the labor movement & the drug war in Brasil and spent years covering union organizing in the South for The Guardian. In 2016, he used his $70,000 NLRB settlement from being fired in the union drive at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Email: [email protected]

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