“The Sulzbergers Must Hate This”: Scenes From The New York Times Picket Line

A sea of red shirts filled the half block outside The New York Times headquarters in Manhattan, spilling out onto the street; Scabby, the 12-foot inflatable rat with bloodshot eyes and a festering underbelly sat next to a cardboard box of extra signs: “NEW YORK TIMES WALKS OUT.” On Thursday, after months of building newsroom frustrations over stalled contract negotiations, the Times Guild walked off the job, a historic act of protest not seen at the paper in more than 40 years. Workers in the union told their readers to keep off the Times website, forgo the crossword, and break their Wordle streaks. Reporters clarified that any articles published today with their names on it were written in advance. Outside the office, photographers and cameramen hung from the scaffolding with eyes over the crowd; union members shouted for a $65,000 salary floor and improved health care benefits, erupting into cheers any time a truck honked in solidarity. Taking in the scene, a reporter from another magazine muttered, “The Sulzbergers must hate this.” 

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The union, which represents about 1,450 employees, threatened a work stoppage last week if they could not come to a contract agreement with management before December 8. The Guild said some progress was made during a 12-hour session Tuesday: Management agreed to keep pensions (a key concession to the union after executives attempted to move members to the company’s 401(k) plan) and to expand fertility benefits, but “there was negligible movement” on wages, said finance reporter and bargaining committee member Stacy Cowley, “the issue every single one of our members considers a priority.” On Wednesday, management agreed to meet for a sidebar, a less formal session without observers, but failed to come to an agreement. Their next scheduled session is this coming Tuesday. “We stand ready to bargain sooner if they will,” said Cowley.

“Hey, AG, I’ve got a hunch, give us raises, not a lunch box” ralliers chanted Thursday, referencing the branded lunch boxes the Times gave out in an attempt to get people back to the office. “Hey, Gray Lady, time to pay me.” It’s a “bittersweet day,” Bill Baker, unit chair of the Times guild, told the crowd. “We are not happy to be here, but we are here. We are here nonetheless in solidarity—that is the sweet of the bittersweet.” Guild members said more than 1,100 staffers had signed the pledge to withhold labor for 24 hours. “We organized a small town,” said sports reporter Jenny Vrentas. 

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As I reported earlier this week, the company’s top brass began executing a contingency plan for the walkout after receiving the Guild’s threatened action; managers had asked writers to file stories early, and looked into how to pull more stories off the wires to fill in anticipated gaps in coverage. “We will produce a robust report on Thursday. But it will be harder than usual,” executive editor Joe Kahn wrote in an email Wednesday evening, as the walkout became official. To an outside observer, the Times’ digital product may have appeared to be humming along on Thursday. But there were some signs of disruption; stories were authored “By The New York Times”—including the paper’s own story about its one-day strike. The liveblog posts were primarily written by international staffers, who are not part of the Guild. Though two prominent journalists in the paper’s DC bureau, chief White House reporter Peter Baker and White House correspondent Michael Shear, refused to participate in the one-day work stoppage, as Semafor reported, and contributed to Thursday’s report.

During Thursday’s rally, several speakers talked about the financial health of the Times, while remembering sacrifices that staffers made in the past for the company, like furloughs and pay cuts during the financial crisis, to help the Times get through. “When this paper struggled, all of us had to share in its austerity. So when the paper is doing well, the people who work here everywhere to make this place a global phenomenon deserve to share in its success,” said 1619 Project founder Nikole Hannah-Jones. “If you compare the cost of our proposal to the $150 million approved for stock buybacks this year, then we know that we have the money to do this for our lowest paid employees.” The company has also increased compensation for some top officers and increased its dividend payout to shareholders this year. “We don’t begrudge them that—at least I don’t,” said longtime staff editor Tom Coffey. “We are just asking the company merely to give us what we deserve and what we have earned over the years.”

Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha said in a statement to Vanity Fair that the Guild’s proposal “would add more than $100 million in additional costs over the life of the contract” and “make it difficult to sustain our investment in journalism.” Cowley said the company “spent $3.4 million increasing the total compensation of four top executives” in 2021, money that “would cover 2% raises for a year—for our entire membership. Our chief executive’s 2021 raise alone would fully cover the cost of the $65,000 salary floor we are seeking.”

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