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New York Times Tech Guild Walks Out, Into an Historic Fight

The workers of the New York Times Tech Guild are fighting their bosses’ attempts to divide their bargaining unit. The future of organizing in the tech industry is dependent on what happens here in the next few months.

Rose Lemlich

August 30, 2021
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Three hands hold up picket signs that have the New York Times front page on them.
PHOTO: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

On August 11th, after months of management’s union-busting and stalling, New York Times tech workers staged the tech industry’s first ever walkout over unfair labor practices. Among the over 300 workers taking part was Kathy Zhang, a senior manager of newsroom and product analytics at the New York Times, who echoed hundreds of years of militant worker organizers when she explained the simple yet monumental rights at stake: “we want better working conditions and we want to be able to advocate for those conditions together.” 

The future of organizing in the tech sector is dependent in large part on what happens here in the next few months. Because the tech industry sits at the nexus of commerce, mass media, finance, entertainment, and nearly all modern forms of communication, a strong labor movement in that sector could result in workers having power over some of the most consequential decision-making of our time. The August walkout, of over 50% of their bargaining unit, establishes the Tech Guild as a fighting union that could set precedents for other tech unions that have yet to be born. On the other hand, Times management’s union-busting, if successful, would do the same. 

The First Time the New York Times Tech Guild Made History 

Back in April, a majority of the technical workers at the New York Times announced that they had formed a union, and asked management for voluntary recognition. The workers, who had been organizing for two years, are on the forefront of a nascent labor movement within the United States’ tech industry. There had never been a federally-recognized union of software engineers in the United States until 2019, when 65 Google subcontractors at a Pittsburgh company called HCL Technologies won their vote. In 2020, the Kickstarter union made history by organizing the first union of direct employees of a tech company (in another first, Kickstarter United included both technical workers like software engineers and analysts as well as every other non-management role at the company, such as designers and member services workers). The Alphabet Workers Union launched in early 2021, aiming to become a minority union without federal recognition, and now boasts over 800 members. The nearly 700 software engineers, designers, data scientists, product managers, and other tech workers of the New York Times Tech Guild are the largest unit of technical workers in American history to go public with their campaign for recognition.

And with historic advance comes historic opposition. The Tech Guild’s fight for recognition of their union mirrors that of so many other workers, in so many industries, over so many decades. The difference here is that the tech industry is, in many ways, a new frontier for organized labor, and also for union-busting. Every bid the Tech Guild makes for recognition has been blocked by their bosses; every good-faith petition parried. With the rest of the tech industry– workers and bosses alike— watching each match play out, new playbooks are written and new offensive maneuvers memorized. 

The Tech Guild workers are organizing for reasons recognizable to any worker, at any workplace. Better pay and pay transparency, better benefits, shorter hours (or at least to be paid for those long on-call hours worked outside of the normal 9-5). The workers also echo calls from tech industry activism and broader social movements that grew in strength over the past ten years. The Google Walkout of 2018, for instance, protesting the company’s handling of sexual harassment, brought 20,000 Google workers out of their offices and onto the street. The Tech Won’t Build It campaign of 2018 and 2019, which spread to Big Tech companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Palantir, was made up of workers protesting these companies’ contracts with ICE, Customs and Border Patrol, and other domestic and foreign government agencies. This ethos spread across the tech sector, at the same time as a broader awareness of the tech industry’s role in the rise of police surveillance, social media misinformation, and algorithmic bias. The movement didn’t skip over the New York Times. 

“There’s always been a lot of chatter from people approaching our tech industry about a more ethical way of thinking about the vendors that we’re using and, you know, ‘what are we going to be engaged in,’ since… we’re putting out news,” said Zhang. “So it’s a little bit different from a company who might have been building surveillance software that could be used by the police state. But there are certain things that we still really care about in terms of data privacy. And so sometimes there’s just broader ideas of ‘can we use this space, this workplace democracy, to think about where we’re taking technology and what we are trying to opt in and opt out of?’” 

Cynical detractors of the need for organized labor in the tech industry often compare the average compensation of technical workers (like those in the Tech Guild) with those of industrial workers. But those averages don’t tell the whole story. “Generally in the engineering space and also at the Times as well, those higher level roles tend to be held by more men, by more white people, by people who have certain privileges that people in lower level positions don’t,” Zhang said. This is common: the tech industry, a supposed bastion of meritocracy, not only turns out to uphold the United States’ widespread race- and gender-based wage gaps, but intensifies them. Black people make up 13% of the U.S. labor force, but only 6% of the top earners in most industries. In the tech industry, only 4% of the top earners are Black. Black employees made up only 4% of Google’s workforce as recently as 2020. Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft began publishing diversity reports in 2014, which hasn’t done much, because as of 2019 three of the four hadn’t increased the number of Black workers they employed by even 1%. On average, white women with college degrees in the tech industry in the U.S. make about 19% less than white men with the same degrees. That statistic elides the fact that women are less likely to be in high-paying positions than men, but in 2019 a study found that women were, on average, being offered 3% less than men for the same job opening at the same company. Latinx and Black women specifically were offered 9% and 11% less. “It’s true that we are well paid and that there are really well paid members of our unit,” said Angela Guo, a software engineer at the Times. “But that doesn’t mean that there is pay equity or transparency in our workplace, and being able to advocate for that and set a standard for what pay equity and transparency and holding leadership accountable for their DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] goals could look like is really exciting to a lot of folks.”

Union-Busting Begins

The Tech Guild’s excitement met management’s first blow on April 22nd, when Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien insisted that the union’s recognition go to a vote. This surprised the Tech Guild, who had been expecting voluntary recognition of their unit, following the voluntary recognition of the Wirecutter Union (another unit in the same workplace, recognized by Times management in 2019). Levein claimed at the time that management felt it was best to engage in “a democratic process that surfaces all the facts, answers questions from employees and managers, and then lets employees decide via an election.” Since they had already demonstrated that a majority of their coworkers were in favor of forming a union, insisting on an NLRB election only bought management time to try to bust their union. “It was not a neutral stance,” said Guo. “Elections in themselves are a union-busting strategy.” 

The Times’ union-busting quickly escalated to law-breaking. In late May, management demanded that a group of product designers stop using pro-union logos and images as Slack profile pictures and Google Meet backgrounds (a remote-workplace version of wearing a pro-union sticker to the workplace). This coercion and restriction of pro-union images in the workplace was clearly illegal, and the workers filed an unfair labor practices (ULP) charge with the NLRB.

On July 21st, the workers in the union sent a petition to management that included the signatures of over 400 workers — over 70% of the bargaining unit — asking for an expedited online election facilitated through the American Arbitration Association. This would have sped up the timeline of their vote, tipping the scales back in the union’s favor. They were denied, although the act of organizing it had an enormous effect on the workers. “Even though management ultimately rejected it, it was the first time for a lot of folks that they saw their name surrounded by four hundred other coworkers’ names” said Guo. “It really helped demonstrate the power of collective action and the power of our community.” The petition, which was passed out and signed in only a week and a half, contained a pledge to vote yes in the election, demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that the Tech Guild was organized and ready for a fight.

It wasn’t a fight they would need to start themselves. As Guo put it, “they just won’t stop breaking the law.” On August 9th, Times management announced their intentions to divide the bargaining unit and allow only software engineers to be part of the recognized union. This move would cut over 200 workers from the bargaining unit. The Times is attempting to cut product and project managers out of the unit, and also all other roles that aren’t software engineering because workers in different roles do not form a “community of interest.” ”The reasoning that they gave the Guild lawyer was basically that they see product managers as supervisors, which hasn’t been my experience or the experience of any of my colleagues that I’ve spoken to,” said Nora Keller, a product manager at the Times. “We don’t have supervisory power. I’ve never been in the position to hire or fire anyone, and I’m certainly not paid the way that supervisors are at The New York Times.” Tech Guild workers, in a show of solidarity, didn’t hesitate for a moment before insisting on trying to move forward with their whole unit intact. “I think it was really powerful for so many people in data, product management, design, etc., to see that we had so many engineers on board immediately, that it was not even at all considered by anyone that we would go forth with an engineers’ only union,” said Zhang. “It just seemed so unthinkable.”

This particular effort to weaken the bargaining unit has implications far past the walls of the Times. “If they say something like, ‘oh, product managers are supervisors, product managers are managers,’ then that precedent has been set for the next group of organizers who try to get a union,” said Keller. Many, many tech companies have workers with these titles. “Product manager” and “project manager” are extremely common titles for “individual contributor” (non-manager) roles at tech companies in the United States- some estimates claim there are nearly 700,000 product managers in the tech industry today. Giving workers titles that make them sound as if they are in supervisory positions, and then excluding them from bargaining units, is a tried-and-true union-busting tactic. As the New York Times Tech Guild is so far the largest unit to attempt to form a federally-recognized union of technical tech industry workers in the United States, the precedent set here by the Times’ management and their union-busting law firm Proskauer Rose will set the stage for every union fight in the tech industry that comes after them. “I do kind of feel that gravity in our campaign,” said Keller. “Not to be dramatic, but it does feel like the world is watching.”

And we were watching, on August 10th, when a lawyer for Proskauer Rose accidentally sent a slide deck detailing their efforts to bust the union, intended only for management to see, to an organizer from the NewsGuild, the national union the Tech Guild is affiliated with. The slides detailed the firm’s efforts to seek the “smallest bargaining unit that is justifiable,” or “the bargaining unit where we are most likely to win an election.” One slide detailed the firm’s estimated breakdown of the workers’ current attitudes towards the vote, including which way they would lean on election day. This, the NewsGuild contends, amounts to illegal surveillance of workers. The Tech Guild accused Times management of “polling workers about their support for our union, preventing workers from showing union support, and promising better work conditions but only without a union.” The NewsGuild immediately filed yet another ULP against the Times. 

Seeing management’s tactics laid bare was frustrating for some Tech Guild workers. “It’s just really easy for companies to do illegal things,” said Zhang. “They get an unfair labor charge filed, and what is the repercussion other than, like, they have to apologize? That is a very, very small price to pay for companies to take our power.” She added, “companies are basically incentivized in our legal system to just do illegal union busting because there’s very rarely any real repercussions.” 

Other Tech Guild workers felt as though the Proskauer Rose leak had lifted blinders to management’s real investment in their union drive failing. “Your slide deck indicates that you strongly suspect the union will win the election,” said Guo, “So why are you going to such great lengths and ignoring hundreds of workers to do this?” Keller agreed. “I think in the beginning they tried to create this guise of neutrality,” she said. “It’s like, ‘oh, we just want everyone to vote, and see how it goes.’ I think at this point, as their messaging becomes increasingly hostile, it’s increasingly clear that they have a dog in the race.” And it’s now very clear what they’re trying to do and why: “it’s because we are 600 people and if they can cut two hundred people out of that unit, we become less powerful” said Zhang. 

An Historic Action

The Tech Guild knew they had to respond, and their next play made history. In a day and a half, in a massive display of solidarity, they organized a walkout of over 50% of their bargaining unit to protest the repeated unfair labor practices to which management was subjecting them. Clarissa Redwine, an activist and writer who helped organize Kickstarter United when she was a worker there, wrote afterwards that this was the tech industry’s first ever walkout to protest unfair labor practices. Predictably, Times management lashed out at the workers who took action. “It was described by the CEO and other executives as aggressive and unusual,” Guo said. “And they really tried to characterize it as something that came out of nowhere when in reality, we’ve tried everything else. We’ve tried asking nicely. They said we didn’t have majority support. We showed them that we have majority support. And the goal posts just kept shifting. We did everything that they were asking us to do, publicly, in increasingly large gestures. And they’ve made it really clear that the goal isn’t actually to listen to us or to respect those actions of the hundreds of employees who are speaking out. So we really feel like we were forced to take this action.”

The size and speed of the walkout stunned some veteran organizers; Redwine called it “an amazing percentage.” “The tech industry hasn’t seen a strike like this over the process of unionization,” she continued. “The NYT Tech Guild must have a stellar outreach structure.” Days later, Guo was still starry-eyed. “I’m so, so in awe of the bravery of our unit,” she said. “For that many people to quickly decide that we were all going to collectively take a direct action and stand up for our community, to stand up for our coworkers, that was an incredible act of bravery.” It is remarkable that these workers, who don’t have the protections of a contract yet, are taking actions together that so many other unions won’t take on. These technical workers do have certain privileges that workers in other sectors do not, which may help mitigate the risk they take on by walking out, but the fact that they’re willing to fight in ways that put them at risk portends ground-breaking fights in the future.

Silicon Solidarity

It’s clear that Times management has a vested interest in the failure of this union drive. And the ruling class certainly knows what solidarity looks like: the management and investors of every other tech company in the United States have a vested interest in this union drive failing, too. It makes sense that the Times and their lawyers are throwing everything they can at the wall, and seeing what sticks: this is the first time anyone has tried, and a win for management here is a win for management everywhere. If the Times succeeds in fracturing the Tech Guild, bosses at every other tech company will use the same tactics to divide their workers. 

The New York Times already has two organized and recognized bargaining units, the newsroom and the Wirecutter staff, who have been showing enormous support for the Tech Guild. This kind of cross-sector unity opens up whole new worlds the working class can fight for. “We feel so much support from tech workers across the industry and also non-tech unions across industries,” said Guo. “There has been so much solidarity and so much support. It’s a really important reminder of why unions are so powerful and important; the knowledge that you’re not alone, the knowledge that there’s hundreds of thousands of other people across the world, across industries, who are standing there in solidarity with you, is such a powerful reminder of why we’re doing this. And we keep saying that we can’t wait to return the favor.”

On August 23rd, the union had its first day of NLRB hearings about which workers will make up the bargaining unit. Management’s witnesses went first, arguing that the workers they are trying to exclude from the bargaining unit do not form a “community of interest” with the software engineers. The workers’ representatives will go next, arguing that management’s characterization of their day-to-day work is wildly out of step with reality. The rest of the tech sector is watching, and workers all over the country are gearing up for matches of their own.  

Some of those workers have already been reaching out to the Tech Guild for advice. “I think a lot of people that I’ve talked to have been caught up in this idea of, ‘do I deserve a union?’” said Keller. “It’s not about ‘do you deserve a union.’ This is your right as a working person to bargain with your employer as a group.” And at least part of the Tech Guild’s success in building a fighting union can be attributed to those organizing principles. “I think the through line of what we’ve been doing as organizers is that we are really committed to having one on one conversations with every eligible member of the unit,” said Keller. “And our goal is always that everyone feels involved. We want people to be engaged because that’s where the power of the union comes from.” 

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