In a year of note-worthy union accomplishments across a wide variety of occupations from show biz to the auto industry, now it’s the media’s turn to stand in the labor spotlight — today about 750 editorial employees of The Washington Post are staging a one-day (24-hour) writers’ strike.
The Post Guild union says management is ‘“refusing to bargain in good faith and breaking the law.”‘
Even in top-tier journalism, money bites: ‘“Because of our previous publisher’s mismanagement, the company has tried to balance its books by laying off nearly 40 people in the last year,” the union said. “Then they offered ‘voluntary’ buyouts to another 240 staffers this fall. Now, The Post has threatened that if they don’t get enough people to leave, more layoffs will be next.”‘
And a call for collective engagement:
A letter to our dedicated readers:
On Dec. 7, we ask you to respect our walkout by not crossing the picket line: For 24 hours, please do not engage with any Post content. That includes our print + online news stories, podcasts, videos, games and recipes. https://t.co/XTxD97lAWu
— Washington Post Guild (@PostGuild) December 5, 2023
And onward to this morning:
— Dan Lamothe (@DanLamothe) December 7, 2023
Details from Charlotte Klein at Vanity Fair this afternoon:
“Fact: Jeff Bezos bought our newspaper a decade ago,” said Katie Mettler, a Metro reporter and longtime cochair of the Post Guild, during an afternoon rally at the picket line. “Fact: He bought us hoping that we would break even or become profitable. Fact: We became profitable. We did our jobs. We met our goals. And then our former publisher Fred Ryan”—prompting boos from the crowd—“squandered our profits, and now we are here, being asked to take accountability for the company’s mistakes. And I don’t think that’s right—I don’t think we should have to bear the burden of their mismanagement.” Mettler continued: “Fred Ryan had one boss and it was Jeff Bezos, so I think that it is reasonable for us to hold him accountable…he has the power to instruct the people who are currently running this company…to come back to the bargaining table.”
Post Guild, the employee union, has been bargaining with the company for 18 months. In that time, Ryan departed, Bezos named former Microsoft executive and longtime confidant Patty Stonesifer as interim CEO, and Stonesifer appointed Will Lewis, former CEO of Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones, as the paper’s next publisher. The Post’s business struggles have also become clear in that time, with The New York Times reporting that the paper was set to lose $100 million this year, and, in mid-October, the Post offering buyouts to 240 employees across its staff.
Last week, however, Stonesifer told staff that “involuntary layoffs” may be necessary to meet the goal of 240 acceptances in the separation package, which, by that point, only 120 employees had accepted. The company initially put caps on every team they offered buyouts to, meaning they’d only accept buyouts on a certain team up to that limit, but Stonesifer in her memo last week said that they would “consider raising caps where we can minimize impact to our mission and product.” Staffers, meanwhile, have sought clarity about the long-term strategy, as I previously reported, both as a business and editorially. “People are disgusted with the company’s actions. Both in terms of the pretend voluntary buyouts, which are really layoffs, and the lack of progress on a reasonable contract,” the Post employee said.
The Guild is asking for 4 percent raises a year for three years, while the company is offering 2.25 percent for the first year of the contract, and 2 percent the next two years. “We deserve a contract that has job security protections and that respects seniority and the value of the employees who have given multiple decades of their lives to this company,” said Kaplan. “We deserve a buyout process that is fair and truly voluntary, and that is not deceptively a worse deal than the company claims it is. And most of all we just deserve to be dealt with fairly by our employer.”
“We respect the rights of our Guild-covered colleagues to engage in this planned one-day strike. We will make sure our readers and customers are as unaffected as possible,” a Post spokesperson said in a statement. “The Post’s goal remains the same as it has from the start of our negotiations: to reach an agreement with the Guild that meets the needs of our employees and the needs of our business.”
Staffers I spoke to had mixed feelings about how much this action will really do. “I think people are genuinely impressed by how this young contention of leaders has revived the union, and doubled its membership,” said a third Post staffer. But “a lot of the same people are disappointed to see that they’re acting out in this way that doesn’t seem to be connected to any real prospect of progress on pay of jobs.” I’m told that there was internal second-guessing on Thursday among reporters who’d agreed to walk out but were now wondering, among other things, what would come next. Some high-profile staffers signed onto the strike out of fear of being publicly called out if they didn’t participate, according to a Post staffer. A piece in Semafor did just that to two top New York Times reporters, Peter Baker and Michael Shear, last year when the two opted out of the Gray Lady union’s walkout—an article, the Post staffer said, that had been circulating in recent days.
Asked about the Guild’s plan following the strike, (Post reporter Marissa) Lang said they would “extend another one-day invitation to the company to sit down with us and meaningfully bargain over the terms of our contract. If they refuse and continue to engage in some of the behavior we’ve seen, we’re prepared to continue to pressure them,” she said
Reportedly, this general work stoppage is the first at the Post since the bitter, 20-week strike of 1975-76, when the late-great Katharine Graham was the publisher.
However, that incident — a pressmen strike — ended shitty as remembered by a former Post reporter, Eugene L. Meyer (Columbia Journalism Review, March 2019):
Typically, bosses seek to portray unions as a third party interfering in the cordial, mutually beneficial relations between management and labor—an outside force. When members aren’t paying attention and don’t think they need to, that may be the case. This is what happened at the Post more than 40 years ago. Fresh off the glory road that led us to Watergate and the resignation of a president, we were suddenly internally imperiled. Smug in the newsroom, we paid little attention to the union-management battles raging in the floors below, where the printers and pressmen toiled. Our own local leadership (of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, Local 35) was in the loop. But the 800 editorial and commercial employees the Guild represented at the Post weren’t.
So, uninformed and in shock, Guild members met that October afternoon at the historic Metropolitan AME Church, around the corner from the Post. The unit voted overwhelmingly to cross the picket line and continue working. We would be the only one of several unions at the Post to do so during the pressmen’s strike. Our refusal to honor the picket line may have doomed their strike from the start. But we had already “withheld our excellence” minus a picket line the year before, so that the printers could continue working without jeopardizing their lifetime job guarantees. The paper published, our absence barely noted by readers and advertisers, and, after 14 days, defeated and humiliated, we went back to work.
Go read Meyer’s whole CJR piece, intriguing and interesting. In the circumstances, all workers in the company need/have to pull together.
Close us out with a news-angle discussion:
Journalists on the picket line, or not, yet once again here we are…
(Illustration out front found here.)