The era of white-collar organized labor is fully upon us: the editorial staff of The New Yorker wants to unionize. This morning, organizers sent a letter to the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, asking that the institution and its corporate owner, Condé Nast, voluntarily recognize their membership in the NewsGuild of New York. (Publications ranging from the New York Times to Jacobin have bargaining units with the NewsGuild.) Organizers say that of the 115 or so union-eligible employees, nearly 90 percent have signed union cards.
The group includes copy editors, web producers, fact-checkers, photo and design staff, the social-media and publicity teams, editorial assistants, and assistant editors. Management and senior-level employees are excluded, as are staff writers, whose job title would not escape the red pen of the magazine’s fact department: Writers at The New Yorker are nearly all independent contractors, rather than staff, and thus do not receive health care or other benefits, despite being largely prevented from writing for other outlets. The relatively few editorial staffers who’ve expressed concerns with the unionizing effort say they are worried about retaliation in an industry where reputation is the coin of the realm.
Among the issues organizers cite are pay disparity among employees doing similar jobs, what they say are low wages compared to competitors, and no clear way in which raises are standardized or tied to measurable job performance. Overtime is a complicated issue: low-level full-time staff, who work long hours, are mostly dissuaded — both implicitly and explicitly — they say, from putting in for the few hours of overtime they’re allotted. Meanwhile, some workers, like new fact-checking hires, are initially brought on as subcontractors, in some cases for as long as two years. When a position opens up on staff, they’re forced to choose between employer-provided health care and losing overtime: going on staff is, functionally, a significant pay cut.
Assistant editor McKenna Stayner said that it’s hard for The New Yorker “to make the argument that the magazine can’t afford to treat its current employees better given that we’re making a profit, that we’re growing massively and hiring,” And, Stayner argued, recognizing the proposed union feels like a moment for the publication to live its values. “What we’re promoting in our pages, we should also be promoting in our workplace. We run labor pieces, and for many of our writers, their system of beliefs is for workers’ rights. Particularly in the last year and a half, with the certain kind of tone of moral authority we have taken on, it would be confusing for both readers and employees for there to be a lot of aggressive pressure against unionizing from New Yorker management.”
“We’ve been told for years that because you get prestige, you don’t get money,” said one print staffer who asked to discuss salary considerations anonymously because of the potential professional consequences. The staffer pointed out that cost of living in New York has far outstripped pay increases at the publication. “You have to be independently wealthy, or have an alternate form of funds, to afford to take these jobs, and many people come from the same pool of Harvard or Yale,” the staffer said (adding that, despite the editor-in-chief’s alma mater, “Princeton is not in vogue at The New Yorker anymore”).
The project is one that’s been undergone in distinctly New Yorker–ish fashion: Today, union supporters will show up to work wearing buttons designed by an affiliated cartoonist, showing the magazine’s monocle-wearing mascot, Eustace Tilley, with his fist raised in solidarity. There have been deep dives into the archives to find classic cartoons that can be retrofitted with new captions about workers’ rights, ready to circulate on social media.
“We care about the magazine, every single line, every bit of kerning,” said Anakwa Dwamena, a fact-checker there. “The magazine is a great product that’s doing well right now, and in order for The New Yorker to keep being good, in the face of a lot of concerning pressures from corporate and from the industry, we want to bring in protections to be able to have the right staff for its success.”
(New York reached out this morning to The New Yorker and Condé Nast for comment and will update this post.)
The unionizing effort began last summer but kicked into high gear in the fall, according to organizers, and comes against the backdrop of recent and somewhat cataclysmic reorganization at Condé Nast, following a stint by McKinsey consultants inside 1 World Trade. Loosely related “brands,” as magazines are now known there, share fact-checkers, copy editors, and art staff, a practice known as “hubbing” that people inside the company generally find demoralizing, particularly those staffers who find themselves hubbed. (A similar reorganization took place on the business side, as well.)
The New Yorker was largely granted an exception, and allowed to retain its own dedicated staff for those positions. (Most of The New Yorker’s formerly dedicated digital-product and engineering team was, however, “hubbed.”) The publication also has enjoyed subscription growth and rumored high profits that are all the more remarkable given the trends not only in the industry but within the recently tumultuous company: There were layoffs in December, which followed the folding of Teen Vogue and Graydon Carter’s departure from Vanity Fair alongside Cindi Leive’s from Glamour. That’s all not to mention the death of longtime owner Si Newhouse and the much-speculated-about future departure of Anna Wintour.
Staffers who’ve worked on the unionizing effort frame it as one that’s about protecting the quality of the magazine that they love from a bottom-line-centric corporate overlord. “This would help David [Remnick] and Pam [McCarthy, the magazine’s deputy editor] so much to be able to say to Condé Nast, ‘There’s no way you could get this past the union,’” said the print staffer. “That’s ammunition for when they need it.” Lauren Leibowitz, a senior web producer, says that while her dream scenario is one in which the whole company is organized, much of the effort is “about being able to advocate as New Yorker employees within Condé Nast,’ and cites by way of example the recent successful union campaign of fellow legacy publication the L.A. Times, owned by the magnificently misnamed and journalism-unfriendly media company Tronc, which has since agreed to sell the company.
This isn’t the first time The New Yorker has faced a unionizing effort. As former staff fiction editor Daniel Menaker amusingly chronicled in n+1, there was a 1970s attempt, inspired by a resurgence in revenues after years of budget slimming. (Employees supposedly had been particularly irked by the downsizing of the “lifetime psychiatric benefit.”) Card signers included Katha Pollitt and Ann Goldstein, longtime copy chief now more famous for her role as Elena Ferrante’s translator, but the promising fact-checker-led effort was quashed by then-editor William Shawn. His anti-union effort suggested that such structures would restrict the “openness and freedom of movement,” as he put it in a letter to staff, that they could parlay into advancing from low-level jobs into more interesting ones. And Shawn’s campaign drew heavily on the implication that such organizing was pedestrian, unlike the institution itself, and that a union would threaten the “friendly, gentle, free, informal, democratic atmosphere,” an alteration that could change the magazine’s character. (He also, in a rather less friendly, informal, and gentle mode, retained a battle-tested anti-union law firm to handle the matter.)
In a subsequent letter, Shawn put a less fine point on things: “I urge you to think deeply about how a union might affect The New Yorker. The New Yorker has been a miracle, but it is a miracle that can be extinguished. Nothing like it ever happened before, and nothing like it will ever happen again. Please do whatever you can to preserve it.”
A Shawnian reverence for the institution above personal interests, and an attendant, particular version of decorum, has until recently prevailed, according to NewsGuild of New York organizing director Nastaran Mohit. “The New Yorker has maintained an ironclad culture, with the reputation and prestige of the magazine serving as an effective, subtle deterrent.”
But a generational sea change — both within the institution and in the culture at large — seems to have taken place. First, employees who seem to share Shawn’s sense of exceptionalism about the publication now see unionizing as the best course of action for preserving the institution. “It was shocking to me that there was no one who thought this was a terrible idea,” said Dwamena, who thinks that might have something to do with how many employees are there now who’ve worked at unionized competitors like the New York Times or the Nation. Mohit credits the increased turbulence in the industry and the visibility of some of the recent journalism organizing campaigns that, she says, has “mitigated some of the fear.”
And while organized labor in general is on the decline in the U.S., it’s on the upswing among young and white-collar workers, for whom advocating against management can feel like less of a career-ending risk. Media unionizing is especially on the rise in recent years, particularly at digital publications: Vox Media, the Huffington Post, Slate, and Vice, among others, have all recently voted to form unions. Just yesterday, Fast Company sent a letter announcing its plan to unionize. It’s not always a play that pans out. DNAInfo and Gothamist were shuttered by their owner, wealthy Republican megadonor Joe Ricketts — and the publications’ archives taken offline, in a particularly retaliatory-seeming move — in the face of a unionizing effort. (WNYC has since purchased the brand and hired back several staffers.) The Huffington Post and Vox Media have undergone layoffs since their unionization. (Employees got severance packages, however, that they wouldn’t have been guaranteed before.)
If management declines to voluntarily recognize a union, the NewsGuild — especially compared with its closest peer, the Writers Guild — historically tends to push for a National Labor Relations Board election that the company is then legally bound to recognize.
Leibowitz says that organizing, for her, is about ensuring she can spend a long career working at The New Yorker, as many of her colleagues in the print copy department have been able to do over the decades. “As a copy editor, one of my favorite things is that my ego is not really part of the conversation,” she said. “Many of us are in positions where we want our work to speak for itself, but at the risk of sounding corny, it’s time for someone to be speaking for the workers.”
Below, the union’s mission statement:
The New Yorker has been a vital force in American journalism for nearly a century. Its deeply reported, clear-eyed, and principled stories have consistently challenged power and exposed injustices and abuses in communities of all kinds. We, the editorial staff of The New Yorker, are very proud of this legacy, and of our place in it. But we believe that the publication must work harder for its employees; the values that run through its pages should be better reflected in the culture of its workplace.
Behind each New Yorker story is a team of editors, fact checkers, designers, producers, and social-media strategists. We bolster and polish the reporting and writing of our authors, and do the granular work of upholding the magazine’s high standards.Yet we lack job security and, for the most part, receive no overtime pay. Salaries often vary significantly among people who hold the same position, and we have seen a steady stream of our colleagues leave for jobs that provide more tenable wages. Some of us have worked for years as subcontracted employees, without health insurance and other basic benefits, though we do the same jobs as the staff members who sit beside us. There is no clear system for tying compensation to performance, no codified method of evaluation, and few opportunities for career development.
To protect our rights as workers and to safeguard the future of our publication, we have chosen to form a union with the NewsGuild of New York, which represents our peers at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, The Nation, and a rapidly growing number of newly unionized publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and The New Republic.
Our decision to unionize comes at a moment when much of what defines The New Yorker—its atmosphere of deliberation and care and its devotion to factual accuracy, careful prose, and expert design—is vulnerable to competing priorities from our corporate parent, Condé Nast. We are determined to do everything we can to protect the health and the integrity of our publication from staff cuts and reorganizations handed down by corporate management without warning or transparency.
We believe that the ability to collectively bargain is the best way to secure a fairer workplace and to insure that the people who produce The New Yorker can continue to do so far into the future. We are asking Condé Nast to recognize our union, and we look forward to beginning an amicable collective-bargaining process.