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The Biggest Tech Unionization Effort Is Happening at the New York Times

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The New York Times building in New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, The New York Times did not have a website. Now, the company employs more than 700 tech workers, almost half its number of journalists. On Tuesday, those tech workers announced they want to form a union.

Almost half the Times is already unionized, including most of the journalists, along with more traditional newspaper technologists: the printers. Now, the tech workers want to join the journalists in their union, The NewsGuild.

The Times' tech workers include everyone from software engineers and data scientists to designers and project managers. These are the people who develop the apps and website, make tools for journalists, analyze data about traffic, and just like the journalists, work around the clock when there is big news like an election.

This is the latest in a series of unionizing efforts by both white collar tech workers and blue collar workers impacted by the internet and digital technology. If the Times workers are successful in their union bid, it will become the largest of any contemporary white collar tech worker organizing effort to be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

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At KQED, we have been covering tech worker union efforts, but this story hits closer to home. My older brother is a programmer at the Times and part of the organizing effort.

I would obviously be partial when it comes to any negotiations with management, so I’m not reporting on any of that. Katie Robertson at The New York Times is covering how the union came together and how this union bid is being received.

What is happening at the Times though is a major development in a bigger story I have been reporting on for years: the growing realization among tech workers that they don’t have as much say on the job as they’d wish, and how organizing could be a way to change that.

The New York Times is a large media company, but like many remaining big newsrooms it’s also a growing tech company. Some of the tech workers do jobs specific to media, like making sure the story layouts transfer to print or helping journalists create visualizations for data. But there are teams of developers and engineers doing the same kind of work that happens at Google or Facebook: building apps, managing traffic and analyzing user data.

I spoke with tech workers at The New York Times about why they wanted to form a union and how they see themselves in relation to other workers in the economy.

Organizing to Make a Different Kind of Tech Company

Senior software engineer Nozlee Samadzadeh helps build the internal site for Times journalists to compose and edit their stories. She got into tech after working as a writer and editor herself. Samadzadeh says it’s important for her to have a say in what she builds and how it is used.

Samadzadeh says, “Unionizing is the only way to introduce a democratic process in your workplace, to kind of get a seat at the table with people in charge.”

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Like many of the tech workers at the Times, Samadzadeh says she’s at the company because of the mission. She doesn’t want to work at big tech companies or startups. “I just could not ever, I think, justify that for myself,” she says.

Samadzadeh says she couldn’t be somewhere focusing primarily on profit instead of social good. She hopes a union will help workers at the Times advocate for the company to resist that influence from Silicon Valley.

Shay Culpepper is an engineer who makes dashboards to track metrics on the Times' homepage. She feels the same.

“I really like going to work every day and not having to sit and contemplate the ethics of the tech I am building,” Culpepper says. “There are definitely ethical considerations, but I am not having cognitive dissonance about the things we are building.”

Many of the workers have firsthand experience of doing exactly that in Silicon Valley. Dylan Nugent is a senior software engineer at the Times. He works on tools to take the stories input by journalists and display them across all the Times' platforms. Before that, he worked at startups in the Bay Area.

“A lot of these companies were not very diverse, and did not have an emphasis on diversity and inclusivity," Nugent says. "A lot of them had the mentality of like: ‘We pay you well so any form of mistreatment or unpaid overtime, well, you shouldn’t have to worry about it because you’re already compensated well.’ ”

Nugent says tech workers, and especially white men like him, should organize so they can use their relative privilege to help others in tech, as well as those in industries where workers have less power.

“If I have a more powerful voice, let me use it to amplify the concerns of the people who aren’t being listened to,” he says. “Let me use it to help build a democratic workplace.”

Kathy Zhang is senior analytics manager on a team that measures traffic and other data for Times news products. She is excited to be part of a union that can push for diversity and equity in the workplace. She says tech workers need to realize they have something to gain from organizing just like any other worker.

“There is this myth of meritocracy that says, ‘If you can work really hard or if you gain these specialized skills, that will set you apart from everyone else and you’ll be able to reap these benefits that other people don’t have,' " Zhang says. "But I don’t think of myself as apart from other people. I don’t think that, just because I can write SQL and I can put some dashboards together, that means I should think of myself as exceptional. I don’t make any decisions in front of the board at shareholders meetings, right? I work for a paycheck.”

All of the tech workers I spoke with were drawn to the Times by the mission and journalism of the organization.

“Allowing citizens around the world to be well-informed and to understand things, I think that sense of purpose is so beautiful,” Culpepper says. On top of that, she says the paper was doing incredible things digitally. She says she was obsessed with the cooking and sudoku apps before she started working there.

My brother, Benjamin Harnett, used to read the paper cover to cover when he was a boy, and our mother had to politely ask for him to stop filling in the crossword before she got to it. He has been an engineer at the Times for nine years, disregarding the stream of recruitment emails from companies like Google and Facebook.

“The normal thing in the tech industry is to hop from company to company every two years," he says. "You do a big project, get a promotion and then move on. You can’t build anything meaningful that way.”

Samadzadeh sees the union as a way for workers to be more involved and committed to the company. She says, “Everyone at the Times cares so much. The ability to get a chance to be part of making the Times better is just so exciting.”

Tech Workers Are Workers

The tech workers at the Times could get material advantages they currently don’t have by joining The NewsGuild: things like overtime, a pension and a say in their health care through union reps. None of that is typical in Silicon Valley.

Guild organizer Marybeth Seitz-Brown says there is an interesting parallel between the tech workers of today and the journalists at The New York Times who first organized back in the 1930s.

“Intellectual workers, like journalists, were often identifying as professionals instead of workers that have things in common with the people they work with," Seitz-Brown says. "In some ways, we are seeing the next wave of that same process that journalists went through.”

While tech workers are relatively well paid compared to some other workers in the economy, they have similar concerns over pay and job protection as all workers. Over the decades they have faced the same kinds of attacks by management and owners that KQED detailed in a three-hour documentary on the erosion of worker power.

There have been abrupt layoffs of tech workers during economic crises, with the pandemic being the latest example. Hundreds of workers at some companies were fired en masse, sometimes over Zoom.

In the 1990s, tech companies pioneered techniques to cut labor costs by outsourcing, contracting and temping workers, all of which led to a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft. Today there is a distinct two-tiered system in Silicon Valley of full-time workers with benefits, and part timers and contractors.

There is a lot of misinformation about the wealth of tech workers. Big payouts can come from stock options, but that’s rare. Most tech workers are not at startups or high up at big tech companies. A majority rely on their wages, which have been relatively stagnant for decades along with everyone else’s.

An Upswing in Organizing Despite Opposition

Big tech companies have made organizing harder for tech workers than it is at media organizations like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, where some tech workers are already unionized.

For one, the big tech companies are much larger than a media organization like the Times. On top of that, companies like Google and Facebook have divided their workers through contracting and outsourcing all over the globe.

Tech giants are also actively fighting unionization efforts at the top and bottom of their workforces. Just last week, Amazon defeated efforts to unionize workers at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

While Amazon stopped the union for blue collar workers, union efforts are growing among white collar tech workers. Over 800 workers at Alphabet, Google's parent company, are organizing. It’s a small fraction of the company's approximately 250,000 workers – but just a few years ago you would have been hard pressed to find any tech worker in Silicon Valley who was even talking about organizing.

The organizing movement in tech has spread from less privileged workers upward. First, service workers at companies like Apple and Facebook joined unions like the Teamsters and SEIU. Uber and Lyft drivers and other gig workers formed groups like Rideshare Drivers United, and Gig Workers Rising.

White collar tech worker organizing has been spurred by conflicts with management, but also over issues like a lack of diversity and equity, and more political concerns about what their companies are building and how the products are being used.

Tech workers have formed organizations like the Tech Workers Coalition and employees at companies like Google and Microsoft have spoken out publicly against contracts with the military and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Last year, a group of around 90 subcontracted workers at Google in Pittsburgh joined the United Steelworkers union. Smaller companies like Kickstarter and Glitch started their own unions. Alongside this organizing, a string of online media organizations like Quartz, Vox and Slate have unionized. The bid for a union at The New York Times is by far the biggest effort.

“If you look historically at labor movements, they don’t grow incrementally, they grow in spurts,” says Ruth Milkman, a sociologist who teaches labor studies at the City University of New York. “Everyone is wondering at the moment, are we at the early stage at such a spurt?”

Milkman says we’re seeing lots of more privileged, educated workers starting to organize, which bodes well for the labor movement.

“Skilled workers, in manufacturing and construction have often been in the vanguard of organizing, not so much out of a sense of, you know, that they can help their coworkers, but partly because they have the leverage,” Milkman says.

Today, the future of more and more companies rests on their tech workers. Milkman says the core grievance of workers at The New York Times is simple — and the same as the factory workers of the past — they want more say on the job.

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