Hundreds of New York Times software engineers and product designers staged a work stoppage on Wednesday amid a growing battle with the newspaper’s management over their willingness to unionize.
Employees quit their jobs at noon and planned to take time off work for the rest of the day in order to draw attention to what they describe as the media company’s efforts to hamper the union recognition process.
Tech workers seek union recognition for around 600 staff, including product designers, software engineers, developers and product managers. The Times’ approximately 1,300 editorial and commercial employees are represented by NewsGuild, a division of Communication Workers of America.
The Guild first announced plans to organize tech workers in April and said since then 70% have signed cards asking to be represented by the union. But instead of willingly recognizing the unity of tech workers, which would have allowed them to start bargaining, the company pushed for a union election. By way of explanation, Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien wrote in April that management had “heard the questions and concerns of many of our colleagues about what this would really mean for their careers.”
The Tech Guild then decided to hold a digital election overseen by the American Arbitration Association, but the Times also refused, preferring to hold an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) – a slower and more cumbersome process, according to organizers.
Earlier this week, The Times pushed back the size of the proposed bargaining unit, suggesting a unit that would include only engineers and exclude more than 200 workers such as product designers and project managers. This led tech workers to organize the shutdown, according to Guild organizers.
“It was sort of the last straw,” Goran Svorcan, a software engineer who works on the Times crossword app, told CBS MoneyWatch, saying the Times refused to recognize the unit and had tried to reduce its size. “Throughout this effort… it looks like The Times moved the goalposts.”
The Guild also filed a number of complaints with the NLRB, alleging that the directors of The Times unlawfully coerced and intimidated workers because of their union support. Two workers told CBS MoneyWatch that Times directors asked workers about their support for the union, asked some people to remove pro-union posts from their Slack accounts at their workplace, and promised some workers better terms. if they voted against the union. All of these alleged actions violate US labor law.
The Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Times spokesperson said Bloomberg that the company denies any wrongdoing, saying it is “confident that we are following the letter of the law” and remains “committed to working in good faith with the union to determine the appropriate unit and plan an election” .
Key battle line
The size of a bargaining unit, as well as the timing of an election, is often the subject of negotiations between companies and workers trying to organize.
“It’s kind of war,” said Todd Vachon, director of the Workers’ Education Action Research Network at Rutgers University. “The incentive on the workers’ side is to have as many people as possible who want to have a union. On the management side, it is a question of restricting the unit to the smallest possible.
“When it comes to workers, the bigger the bargaining unit they have, the more power they have,” he said.
Lengthening the union recognition process also tends to favor employers, Vachon said. Delaying the date of an election gives a company more time to deter workers who may be on the fence, or to improve working conditions to persuade employees that they do not need a union. Once a union is recognized, the process of negotiating a contract that meets workers’ demands can take years.
Nozlee Samadzadeh, a senior software engineer at The Times involved in the work stoppage, said Times executives were trying to “create haves and have-nots” to deter the organizational effort.
“We don’t want to live in this world and we are not going to do it,” she said. “We’re here for this fight, we’re here to the end – all we want is to make The Times a better place and get to the negotiating table.”
Tech workers, including developers and news designers, have become an increasingly important part of the Times newsroom, as well as other media organizations increasingly focused on digital content. .
The negotiating group proposed to The Times is said to be America’s largest union of tech workers. Industry, whose workers tend to be dispersed and are often well paid, has long resisted organized labor. However, a survey this spring by tech publication Protocol found that about half of tech workers are interested in join a syndicate.