Last week, the union at the Washington Post signed a contract extension. With a pandemic raging and the president ranting and the boss, Jeff Bezos, on track to become a trillionaire, why should readers care about the union? Because it protects one of America’s best newsrooms from being torn apart by some powerful egos.
The history of the Washington Post Guild has been a rocky one. The paper unionized in 1934, part of the original wave of newsroom organizing. In 1975, the paper’s pressmen went on strike. The Guild, which represented the newsroom employees, made the infamous decision not to strike with their blue-collar colleagues. Hundreds of reporters, including Bob Woodward, crossed the picket line. The Post’s owners, the Graham family, ruthlessly leveraged the turmoil to bust the paper’s unions. To this day, the Washington Post Guild remains a rare media union that is an “open shop,” meaning that employees are not required to pay dues—a classic anti-union tactic designed to weaken labor power. Katharine Graham was often celebrated as a fiery journalism pioneer, but her hatred of unions is less discussed. And lest you think this is all news from a bygone era, the Graham family also (unsuccessfully) tried to impose “open shop” status on the union at Slate just two years ago, nearly forcing workers there to strike.
The Post was sold to Bezos, the world’s richest businessman, in 2013. One might think that having an owner with a net worth over $100 billion would put an end to any haggling over minor contract provisions. One would be wrong.
Shortly after Bezos took over, the company cut back on employee pensions. In 2018, Guild members tried to negotiate improvements in their 401(k) and to the paid family leave policy into their latest contract; the company would not agree. Yet after the contract was finished and signed, the company announced improvements to those very same policies. “They just did not want to give the Guild credit for raising an important issue and acting on it,” says David DeJesus, co-chair of the Guild on the commercial side.
Last year, proving two can play at that game, the Guild itself conducted and published a pay study at the paper that found that the company was underpaying younger women and people of color, occasioning hasty assurances that management would act after the study hit the news.
Every union at every company is locked in a constant fight of labor versus capital, and every union in the journalism world must deal with the added challenge of waging such a battle while still doing the work of professional journalism. The Post’s union, though, has far more delicate challenges than most. Consider the confluence of forces buffeting the Guild. It has the normal demands of trying to improve wages and working conditions for members in a contracting industry. It faces, on one side, the virtually limitless power of a zillionaire owner who does not like unions and also owns some of the most powerful and newsworthy companies in America—and, on the other, a US president who hates and denounces the newspaper itself, and who also hates and denounces the owner of the newspaper, for separate reasons.
This set of bizarre and highly public rivalries means that anything the Post Guild does may well be weaponized by Donald Trump in his personal grudge match against Bezos. (Trump tweeted about labor unrest at the paper in 2018.) Whatever comes out of the resulting news frenzy will surely not capture the finer points of what is happening in reality. Add to this the now standard charges of “media bias” that ensue every time the Post does anything, and you start to get a picture of the unpredictable ripple effects from what might be considered straightforward union advocacy.
“It’s a tension that we navigate. I don’t think that we have a good answer for it,” says Katie Mettler, a Post reporter and the Guild co-chair on the newsroom side. “Every couple of months the question arises: What is our role as fellow workers under the Bezos umbrella? It’s just complicated for journalists to navigate. Many of our members report on retail, or Amazon. Our owner overlaps with a lot of different coverage lanes, especially since the Post has been a political target.”
But internally, they are still organizing up a storm. The energy of a younger generation of pro-union reporters (like Mettler herself) who want to improve the cutthroat industry we work in has helped the Guild make headway in recruiting more employees into the union—an endless process made necessary by the deadly “open shop” agreement all those decades ago. According to the Guild, they now have 503 dues-paying members out of 920 total eligible employees, or about 55 percent. That is, of course, much worse than the 100 percent they would have were they not an open shop, but it is up from about 48 percent just a year ago and from an overall membership rate that hovered around 40 percent for most of the past two decades.
In the context of the newspaper industry, the Post is a great place to work, particularly because it is not about to go broke. DeJesus estimates that the company has lost “tens of millions of dollars” in advertising as a direct result of the coronavirus crisis, but so far the Post has avoided any layoffs, and the company is in a relatively strong financial position. “We are all grateful to be working at a place that is financially secure,” Mettler says. “However, with that privilege comes the responsibility of recognizing how our voice and our place in the industry can influence expectations for how journalism workers should be treated.”
The Guild was organized to negotiate an ambitious new contract in April, just as the coronavirus shutdowns hit and everyone was sent to work from home. The full contract negotiations were shelved in favor of an extension of the current contract into next year, when the negotiation of a full contract will begin anew. (“We are glad we were able to reach an agreement on an extension with the Guild and ensure our employees would not have to worry about the contract during this already challenging time,” a Post spokesperson says.) The union gives the company credit for doing a good job keeping employees safe and protecting their physical and mental health during the pandemic. Still, the Guild has a full list of issues it wants to improve: retirement benefits, pay equity, gender and racial diversity in the paper’s top ranks. If the past is any guide, it will have to fight hard for all these things.
There is something heartening about the reenergizing of unions at journalism’s most prestigious institutions. They are the things that embody the afflict-the-comfortable ideals of the profession, even when the most elite corners of the media can be full of monstrous egos and genuflections to power. In the end, the union will last longer than any of us.