New York Times Made Staff Nix Pro-Union Images, Guild Says

A New York Times Co. employee union is accusing the newspaper publisher of violating federal labor law by restricting its tech workers from showing support for the NewsGuild.

A NewsGuild complaint filed Tuesday with the National Labor Relations Board says the Times’s management illegally “interfered with, restrained, and coerced its employees,” including by interrogating workers about their union activism and by maintaining rules that “prevent or discourage” them from supporting the labor group.

The NewsGuild of New York, part of the Communications Workers of America, represents 1,300 editorial and business employees at the Times. It announced a campaign in April to unionize around 700 Times tech workers, such as software engineers and product managers. A majority have signed union cards, the guild said.

In a 2007 editorial, the Times endorsed legislation that would have required companies to recognize unions once a majority of workers signed such cards, rather than also requiring an election. The newspaper said that “in a disturbingly high number of cases, the employer uses the time before the vote to pressure employees to rethink their decision to unionize.”

Part of the complaint involves a late May meeting in which Times management ordered a group of product designers to stop using pro-union avatars and backgrounds in online services like Slack and Google Meet, according to Bon Champion, one of the employees.

Organizing Committee

Champion, a member of the union’s organizing committee who works on the Times’s phone and tablet apps, said in an interview that the company told him and several other co-workers who would be overseeing summer interns that they couldn’t show public support for guild because the interns needed to “feel safe” talking to them.

Champion said management told him and his colleagues that their responsibility for the interns legally made them supervisors. He said that’s wrong, given that the product designers don’t have authority to punish the interns.

“This was really just about silencing our voices and pressuring us into stepping back from our support for the union,” Champion said. Employees including Champion also said they have been required to attend meetings in which managers made arguments against unionizing, such as claiming it would harm collaboration at work.

Asked about the allegations, the Times said Tuesday that the company told employees who “hire, supervise and assess” interns “that while in this supervisory position they would need to act in a manner that is consistent with a management role.” The company supports having “an election where everyone has the opportunity to vote,” Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha said in an emailed statement. “We will continue to communicate with employees in a variety of formats to make sure they have all the information they need to decide if joining a union is right for them.”

Past Cases

Since 1935, federal law has prohibited companies from restraining their nonsupervisory employees’ advocacy for unionization or for changes to their working conditions.

The NLRB, which interprets and enforces labor law, has applied it to online speech as well as in-person activism, ruling that a restaurant worker’s Facebook “like” on a post criticizing management was legally protected, and that a tweet by Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk saying unionization would cost workers their stock benefits constituted an illegal threat. Tesla has denied wrongdoing and appealed.

Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien told tech employees in an April message that the company wouldn’t voluntarily recognize their new Times Tech Guild, saying management believes “the right next step” is an election.

Under U.S. law, companies are allowed, but not required, to begin recognizing and negotiating with a union as soon as a majority of employees have signed union cards.

Both the media and tech sectors have been roiled by new waves of workplace organizing in recent years.

The NewsGuild has won recognition for the first time at the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian and the Daily Beast, while the Writers Guild of America East did so at Gizmodo Media Group, HuffPost and Vice Media Inc.

Dues Increase

The New York NewsGuild recently asked members to support a dues increase to help fund its growth, a proposal some prominent Times journalists opposed on the grounds the guild isn’t budgeting responsibly. Last week, the union’s executive committee told members it had amended the dues proposal in response to feedback and that “asking probing questions can never be wrong.”

The country’s largest tech companies remain nonunion, but have faced high-profile activism, including the unveiling in January of another CWA affiliate, the Alphabet Workers Union, targeting the parent of Google. The NewsGuild’s Washington-Baltimore chapter represents news outlets including Bloomberg Industry Group, a subsidiary of Bloomberg LP.

Along with filing the NLRB complaint, the NewsGuild is escalating its campaign for recognition by unveiling a petition for subscribers to sign to Levien.

“It is crucial that we put an end to the myth that tech workers are somehow different from other workers by enforcing our rights, both for our union and the future tech workers who will follow us,” the petition website says.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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