Staffers at The New Yorker are still at work two weeks after NewsGuild union members voted to strike if progress isn’t made in their contract negotiations with Condé Nast. The strike vote allows the union members at The New Yorker, Ars Technica and Pitchfork to walk off the job if stalled negotiations continue to devolve, the unions for each publication said in a joint statement.
The vote is the latest development in an escalating battle between the unions and Condé Nast. Staff members at The New Yorker, who have been fighting to raise wages and guarantee that editorial workers earn enough to afford to live in New York City, have been particularly active and turned up the heat on their campaign and appealing for public support through a Twitter action that began on March 2.
The union’s Twitter account published a series of anonymous testimonials from members describing the impact the magazine’s salary rates have had on their careers and standard of living.
One person claimed that their compensation was so low, they spent more than 50 percent of their take-home pay on rent.
Another worker, who said they were a woman of color, claimed that they made $40,000 less than their counterparts at other Condé Nast magazines, and half of what their white, male New Yorker peer earned.
The New Yorker Union, which is represented by the NewsGuild of New York, has been in negotiations with Condé Nast and magazine leadership since November 2018, seeking a collective bargaining agreement that would establish policies on starting wages, raises and protections for firings, among other provisions.
The union is asking for $63,500 as a starting salary for its members, which include fact-checkers, web developers, copy editors, proofreaders and other production staff who oversee the editing, development and publication process for the magazine.
The magazine’s staff writers, many of them well-known authors, are considered independent contractors and as such are not eligible for union representation and are not involved in the union’s bargaining fight.
The latest sticking point, according to the union’s first vice chair, David Muto, is the magazine’s starting wages for its editorial workers. Muto said the starting salary for an entry level employee at The New Yorker is $42,000 a year, and that the union’s proposed salary floor was a “reasonable, livable wage” that was “meant to correct for long-standing inequities.” The union wants annual wage increases for workers who stay at the magazine.
“The New Yorker has underpaid people for decades,” said Muto, who has been a copy editor at the magazine since 2015 and was on the organizing committee that established The New Yorker Union. “It’s really a place where you’re told prestige makes up for low pay. It’s gotten to a place where that doesn’t work for people anymore.”
The New Yorker senior management and Condé Nast have balked at the union’s proposal to raise wages that reflect the city’s high cost of living, Muto said.
Condé Nast did not respond to a request for comment. In addition to The New Yorker, the media conglomerate publishes Bon Appetit, Vogue, G.Q. and Wired, among other magazines.
According to M.I.T.’s Living Wage calculator, the typical annual salary for media professionals in New York County is $69,496.
Muto said that the magazine’s low wages and stagnant raise policies have forced some New Yorker employees to take on second jobs, while others rely on family or spousal support to supplement their wages.
Natalie Meade, The New Yorker Union’s unit chair, confirmed Muto’s assertions, adding that at least one New Yorker Union member had to leave the city and move in with family members during the pandemic to make ends meet. Another had to rent a new apartment big enough to house family members who could provide free childcare.
“Our hope is that our members can afford to work just one job and have that be enough to pay the rent, and that anything else is voluntary, not out of necessity,” Meade said.
According to the results of a pay transparency study that the union published in September, pay inequities are rampant at The New Yorker. The gap between men and women’s median pay is $4,000, while white workers earn up to $7,000 more a year than workers of color.
The recent Twitter campaign is just one high-profile action the union has undertaken since beginning negotiations more than two years ago. In September, the union picketed the prestigious New Yorker Festival, leading scheduled guests like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to pull out of the festival in solidarity with the demonstrators.
Nicole Cohen, a professor at University of Toronto and an expert on media worker organizing, said that while COVID-19 had exacerbated and drawn attention to inequities in media, the industry began its first “big wave” of unionization efforts in 2015 beginning with Gawker Media. At that time, it appeared digital media was on solid financial ground.
“Many workers saw their companies grow really quickly, from a small startup or blog to becoming a really big organization with offices and boardrooms,” she said. “There was a feeling that there [were] just no processes or policies or transparency around growth or what you [were] being paid, or how to be promoted or what to do when you were fired.”
Digital media is less stable now. The New Yorker maintains a strong web presence and publishes many stories that only appear online. Unions can provide a sense of protection from a volatile news sector, said Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter at HuffPost and one of its union leaders.
“People see layoffs happening, newsrooms getting sold to venture capitalist groups, they want to have some basic seat at the table when a lot of this stuff is happening,” he said. “People want some semblance of control and see unions as one way to get there.”
Muto expressed optimism that The New Yorker Union will eventually prevail. He pointed to one major victory secured in October: the requirement that management demonstrate just cause for firing.
Muto also noted that workers at dozens of other media companies have formed unions over the last two years, building a precedent for The New Yorker eventually to agree to its union’s proposals.
The recent wave of attention to inequities and unionizing, Muto said, “presents lots of opportunity for change, solidarity and really changing expectations of the workplace.”
Despite 98% of union members voting to authorize a strike, Muto said The New Yorker union members will wait to strike as they head back to the bargaining table with the magazine.
“Negotiations are not over,” he added. “Condé Nast and The New Yorker can still come through. They could still work as hard for us as we’ve worked for them, but we expect that we still have several more weeks of a fight on our hands. We’re ready for that.”
About the author(s)
Lia Russell is a journalist from San Francisco, California. Lia earned a B.A. from Bard College. Before coming to Columbia she was a staff reporter at FCW, where she covered the federal workforce and government in Washington, D.C. She focuses on investigative and audio reporting at Columbia Journalism School, and her work has been published in SF Weekly, The American Prospect, The Strikewave and The New Republic. You can reach her on Twitter: @LiaOffLeash.