OPINION: New York Times strike: From reporters to rabble rousers

Independent Media Institute

Strike activity in the United States appears to have reached an all-time high as the unionized staff of the New York Times recently joined the ranks of iconic brands like Starbucks and Amazon in agitating for their rights.

More than 1,100 staffers, represented by the NewsGuild of New York, staged a one-day walkout on Dec. 8, saying their hand was forced “due to the company’s failure to bargain in good faith, reach a fair contract agreement with the workers, and meet their demands.” It was the first time in 40 years that the paper boasting of publishing “All the News That’s Fit to Print” experienced such a labor action.

“We make the paper, we make the profits!” chanted striking workers in a raucous rally outside the Times’ headquarters. Some union members called on the public to show solidarity by refraining from accessing the digital edition of the Times, even in order to play the popular game Wordle. The NewsGuild has also called on subscribers and supporters to sign a petition in support of their demands, saying, “We are the people who deliver groundbreaking journalism and keep the newsroom running every day.”

The strike is particularly significant given that the Times is arguably the most influential journalistic outlet in the nation, framing political and economic issues for the public. It is considered the “national ‘newspaper of record,’” and its journalists have won more than 100 Pulitzer Prizes. They have leverage over their employer, although their reluctance to use it is apparent given both the rarity of such strikes and the very limited scope of the Dec. 8 action.

Staffers have been working without a new contract since the last one expired in March 2021. After more than 20 months of negotiations, the New York Times Company, which owns the paper, has reportedly refused to budge on salaries, remote working limits and other demands. According to the NewsGuild, “their wage proposal still fails to meet the economic moment, lagging far behind both inflation and the average rate of wage gains in the U.S.”

How radical are the Times workers’ demands? Among other things, they want a $65,000 salary floor, which is hardly a large amount for residents of New York City, one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S., and in the world. Workers have rightly rejected the paltry 2.75 percent annual wage increase that the company is offering — the same company that gave its top three executives raises amounting to about 32 percent from 2020 to 2021. Workers are also asking the company to fully fund their health insurance policies — again, not a radical ask.

Instead of meeting these basic demands, the company is operating like a money-hungry Wall Street corporation, by taking the massive profits it has made off the labor of its workers and setting aside $150 million to buy back stocks for its investors.

Another major workers’ concern is racial discrimination within the company. According to an August 2022 report by the NYT Guild Equity Committee, the company’s performance rating system is deeply discriminatory. Performance evaluations determine bonuses, and the report concluded that in 2020, “white employees accounted for more than 90 percent of the roughly 50 people who received the top score.”

Instead of using some of its profits to make its workers happy, the company offered them free Times-branded lunch boxes in September—part of a push to lure remote workers back to in-person work. “[M]y colleagues and I don’t need cute trinkets,” responded one Times staffer in September. She pointed out that “330 of us wrote emails last month asking for real raises to combat inflation.”

I was a unionized journalist for nearly 20 years as a member of SAG-AFTRA. Even though I worked for a nonprofit radio station, many of the issues my fellow staffers and I faced were similar to those at a for-profit outlet like the New York Times. Rather than cute lunch boxes, my radio station’s management once gave employees brand-new copies of the book Who Moved My Cheese?, a patronizing pro-corporate piece of pabulum intended to soothe workers without actually giving in to their demands. For years we worked for below industry wages, telling ourselves that our noble profession was a labor of love.

Journalists are meant to report on matters of social, political, and economic injustice. We don’t like to report on ourselves and our own industry. But, in a world where information is currency and travels at lightning speed, and disinformation has driven democracy into a corner, solid, dependable journalism is more crucial than ever. We are people. We too have to eat, pay bills, and go to the doctor.

In all honesty, the New York Times does not deserve its reputation for being the “newspaper of record.” It’s true that the paper has produced such groundbreaking work as Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, earning it the ire of right-wing extremists like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump.

But analysts at the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) have, for years, called out the paper’s journalists and the editorial board for faulty, biased, incomplete, pro-corporate, or pro-government reporting. One September 2021 report by FAIR senior analyst Julie Hollar detailed how a Times reporter was “running interference” for wealthy elites when reporting on the Biden administration’s tax plan. Another report, from June 2021 and also by Hollar, demonstrated how the paper was merging content and commerce with a blatant non-advertising promotion for Amazon’s Prime Day. FAIR has produced dozens of such critical reports over the decades.

Now, Times workers who produce the news find themselves on the other side of the reporting as they demand fair working conditions. It’s a harsh lesson to see oneself as the victim of a predatory capitalist structure that chews up and spits out workers like they mean nothing. Within such structures is a continuous stream of money upward with only the barest allowable minimum being set aside to pay the labor costs required to make the product—in this case, the news.

A Dec. 7 article that appeared in the Times explained that “Times journalists have rarely gone on strike. They did so for less than a day in 1981, and there was a brief walkout in 2017 to protest the elimination of the copy desk. No labor action has stopped publication of The Times since a strike of pressmen and others in 1978, which lasted 88 days.”

Clearly, there is a reluctance on the part of Times journalists to fully flex their power. But the point of a union is to extract what it needs from an employer by using collective power. The paper can, and did, wait out the 24-hour strike. If workers went on an indefinite strike until their demands were met, it might force the company’s hand—and it might make reporters more critical of business models that screw over workers for profits.

(Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.)

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