In October 2016, Wirecutter, a scrappy website that uses journalism to help people make purchases, was five years old. On a Sunday that month, Brian Lam, the site’s founder, told everyone to clear their Monday for an all-hands meeting.
Usually, in media, that means that you’re all getting fired. Sad! But shortly, the word got out: The company was being acquired by the New York Times.
Nick Guy, Kimber Streams, and Kevin Purdy, three Wirecutter folks in Buffalo, went out that night, all excited, to celebrate.
That excitement has resonated for another five years. Nick, now living in Brooklyn, still has a framed article about the Wirecutter acquisition on the wall of his home office, where he reviews Apple products and accessories for the site. That enthusiasm for Wirecutter is helping, in his capacity as Wirecutter’s unit chair on the NewsGuild of New York executive committee, to facilitate a strike that is scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m. on Thanksgiving.
The union is asking readers to not shop through Wirecutter during the strike, which is intended to end on Tuesday, spanning some of the peak online shopping days of the year.
Management is not happy. In the Times all-company Slack, David Perpich, whose title is head of standalone products, which means he oversees things like Wirecutter and the Cooking product — and whose grandfather is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger — posted a message saying that, while the institution understood the right to strike, management was “disappointed.” He wrote:
Strikes are extreme measures that are typically reserved for instances in which an employer is not willing to negotiate further. With the Wirecutter Union, we are very close to reaching an agreement and have remained willing to engage in the necessary give and take of negotiations to try to reach overall agreement.
Emoji reactions to his Slack post, as of about 11 a.m. on Wednesday, were not friendly. They included union logos and at least 39 people posting a fist raised in solidarity, 34 people posting a grimace, 38 people posting the thinking-face emoji, plus 12 people responding with an emoji depicting Gritty, the chaos-oriented Philadelphia Flyers mascot.
The strike is, in some ways, a commentary on the last five years of Wirecutter at the Times. (Lots to disclose here before we move on: I have worked as management at the Times, including alongside the labor relations people who handle bargaining, and also had some very small involvement in the start of Wirecutter. I am a Times shareholder, and also I tend to side entirely with unions even when it’s not reasonable to do so. Finally, New York is also unionized through NewsGuild, though I am not a member.)
Many Wirecutter staff realized early on that their Times colleagues weren’t as excited about their arrival, even as the then-CEO extolled at sale time that Wirecutter “embodies the same standards and values that are the pillars of our own newsroom.” But Wirecutter was always treated as a second-class citizen, isolated in its own Slack, its own offices, and its own reporting structure under Perpich. It never joined the newsroom, and its work was openly sneered at by some longtime staffers. Many Times staffers don’t believe their work is journalism at all. The pay scale, as well, is substantially different from Times salaries. Even Times fellows, which are yearlong full-time jobs in the newsroom designed to train emerging journalists, receive a significantly higher salary than the starting rate for Wirecutter writers.
The reason the union is asking readers to not buy through the site is that the company’s main revenue base has always been from referral fees from sales on sites like Amazon. Recently, Wirecutter has become part of the Times’ subscription offerings, and also, the future of affiliate revenue is always cloudy, as much of it depends on the whims of Jeff Bezos. Subscribers and their retention is the most important thing to the business side of the Times, according to its chief executive. Wirecutter recruited 10,000 subscribers in its first month behind the paywall.
Today, before their departure, staff are trying to set Wirecutter up for success, setting up management and freelancers to cover the holiday that has somehow become synonymous with online plundering. “Ideally we will reach a deal — and we want to be setting ourselves up to succeed if we do reach a deal,” said Guy on Wednesday morning. (Technically, he had a long-scheduled day off and would not be working himself.)
The points of dispute between the union and management have been fairly par for the course — pay bands, annual increases, health-care costs, and the end of nondisclosure agreements, so as to not muzzle people in harassment or discriminatory situations. And the union and management are not so far apart, already largely in alignment on health care and on “30 topics,” according to Perpich.
This limited strike hopes to be a part of a wave of organizing and action, from Starbucks to John Deere to Columbia University’s student workers to Amazon, that is proving the worth of organizing labor. Striketober is giving way to Strikevember and leading into Strike … cember? Hmm, we’ll keep working on that.
The Times, in a statement shared with publications, said: “The New York Times has a long history of productive relationships with unions to advance our shared objectives. We’re actively working with the Wirecutter Union to reach a collective bargaining agreement that continues to reward our employees for their work and contributions to the Times’ success, and we look forward to continuing those negotiations at the bargaining table.”
The company had said that it had blocked out dates over this period in advance and was unable to meet with Wirecutter until early December. “We were surprised when the Guild set an arbitrary deadline in the middle of an established negotiation blackout period (the purpose of which, this year and last, is to make sure everyone is focused on serving our readers during our busiest period),” Perpich wrote in his Slack message.
Response from inside the journalism and pro-union bubbles online to the strike has been obviously enthusiastic. A fundraiser to subsidize staff who expect to be docked pay on Monday and who would miss out on overtime was prospering. But what about beyond?
“What’s been really exciting to me,” Guy said, is “really hearing so many people who say, ‘I outfitted my entire home with Wirecutter; I look forward to Black Friday with Wirecutter — and I’m not going to cross the digital picket line.’ That was really meaningful.”