Starting at midnight on December 8, the New York Times Guild organized a one day work stoppage in support of ongoing contract negotiations with management, the first of its kind since 1981. Over 1,100 members participated. An additional 400-odd members of the tech side of the Times participated in “a collective lunch break in support of the Times Guild members.” But the real action was among the readers, podcast listeners, and the players of the crossword, the Spelling Bee and Wordle. Times readers and the broader public were being asked to take part in what Times staffers were calling a “digital picket line.”
Without a contract, today I join 1,100 of my colleagues in walking out. We’re asking readers to not engage in any @nytimes platforms today and stand with us on the digital picket line. Read local news. Listen to public radio. Break your Wordle streak. https://t.co/umJkQN1qVV
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) December 8, 2022
“We’re asking readers to not engage in any @nytimes platforms today and stand with us on the digital picket line,” Times writers tweeted, led by the Guild. “Read local news. Listen to public radio. Break your Wordle streak.”
But a picket line cannot be digital, and the slogan reveals the fundamentally upper class nature of the Times walkout—less a labor action and more a LARP of one.
To be sure, there are workers in the classical sense in the New York Times Guild. In November, a building secretary stopped an axe- and sword-wielding maniac who entered the Times building trying to get to the politics section. And there are any number of janitors and maintenance staff and people who still have to fix the old machines that a great old newsroom uses.
But journalists are not working class laborers—at least, not anymore. In a 2018 documentary, author of The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at the New York Times Gay Talese bemoaned a major change in journalism in his lifetime. “These journalists go to elite colleges,” Talese said. “We went to the not elite colleges.”
Today, almost everyone at a place like the New York Times has a college degree, and almost 50 percent went to a top-30 college. (Over 60 percent of Americans did not go to college, much less a selective one.) The Times Guild’s latest pay equity study shows over half of members make over $102,000 a year. The young writers at the Times who led the Tweeting effort to build the “digital picket line” make six figures if they have been working there for at least two years. Meanwhile, average personal income in the U.S. is around $64,000.
The way the union chose to perform its labor action—digitally, for Twitter clout—is indicative of the way its leadership and most of its membership are soft members of the upper middle class jumping at a chance to play at the history of the labor movement while in fact being very powerful and fairly wealthy people.
Times workers did put on a demonstration outside the building in midtown Manhattan, even featuring the famous Scabby inflatable rat New York union efforts use to draw the attention of passersby. But the primary audience of the work stoppage was online. Specifically, it was meant to go viral on Twitter, which it did.
Since the late 1800s, the labor movement in America, which realized the demands of such slogans as “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will,” has accomplished a lot. At its best, it was focused on being as strategic as possible in seeking humane conditions for workers, eventually establishing norms and laws around the workday, the weekend, child labor, overtime pay, worker safety, hazard pay, and more. There were always ideologically pro-worker rich people and elites involved, but it was always a movement of workers. From the Haymarket riots on, workers lay their bodies on the line in protest as they did on the job.
Meanwhile, in protest and in life, the Times workers‘ walkout took place primarily in the digital sphere.
Of course, these workers like all workers have the right to protest. All work should be fairly (and hopefully more than fairly) compensated. But it is ignorant and self-aggrandizing to ignore the difference between physical labor and the labor done by those of us in the “knowledge economy.”
Plant labor in the burgeoning industrial age was backbreaking, be it repetitive factory work or fruit picking or mining, and that was part of what gave force to the claims of the labor movement. Long shifts like the ones my upper class lawyer and banker friends will be pulling all weekend are punishing, even in types of labor that aren’t that physically demanding in nature. But they are richly rewarded for their troubles. Moreover, blue collar and white collar work are not the same, and one should not pretend to have the same needs as the other or demand to be talked about in the same way. One can be a sort of torture, and the other cannot.
Everyone in the labor movement or on the Left understood this very basic fact until a few years ago, and people are only pretending not to understand it now in order to steal the valor of the real working class.
The truth is, the Times Guild has understood something important about the management they are fighting: The Times‘s biggest asset is now its subscriber base. Between Trump’s election and 2020, digital-only Times subscriptions tripled from 2 to 6 million, as newsreaders had come to see subscribing not merely as a way to pay for access to its journalism, but also as a political act, a way to register dissent. These days, you aren’t just subscribing for New York Times access; you’re subscribing against Trump, or whoever his deplorable successor turns out to be.
Because of this subscription bonanza, the Times made a ton of money in these years. No doubt this explains part of why the Guild members have chosen a strategy of labor action that, as Politico’s media writer Jack Shafer put it, “can reap publicity for their cause, but … can’t hurt management.” They’re fighting over subscribers.
If it’s thrilling for Times readers to imagine the “digital picket line” of today being continuous with some glorious history of the fight between workers and capitalists, they are free to skip the Wordle and to enjoy it. But if the truth is really more important now than ever, they should know that they are only pawns in a fight between different parts of the well to do management of American society, squabbling over how to apportion the capital being extracted.
Nicholas Clairmont is a reporter and the Life & Arts section editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine. His work has appeared in Tablet, The Atlantic, The Dispatch, and elsewhere.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
The post Tweeters of the World, Unite Around the New York Times and Its ‘Digital Picket Line’ appeared first on Newsweek.