Binyamin Appelbaum, the lead writer on economics and business for the New York Times editorial board, is by all accounts a union man. In his recent essay on “The Power in Numbers”, he concluded with a rousing demand: the Government must “protect the rights of Americans and ensure every worker is free to seek strength in numbers”.

On paper, his piece had all the hallmarks of an inspiring call to arms: it was illustrated with a photo gallery of smiling workers; it took a swipe at Amazon and Starbucks; it celebrated how the “movement retains pockets of strength”. It was inspiring, that is, until we remind ourselves that the NYT is one of the most aggressively anti-union newspapers in the media — an attitude that trickles all the way down from the dynasty that still controls the paper to this day.

Just this month, it emerged that senior NYT executives are heavily leaning on 600 tech staffers hoping to unionise. In response, Times management has implemented a full-court-press campaign to defeat the effort. “This is an unproven experiment with permanent consequences,” New York Times Company CEO Meredith Kopit Levin wrote to staff in a leaked memo. “We encourage you to vote no,” the NYT informed staff in leaflets it distributed. Indeed, the NYT has been so strident in its approach to the tech union that a group of investors wrote a letter to the company’s management, urging them to “cease and refrain from actions that may violate federal labor law”.

Yet such behaviour is nothing new. Only weeks before, the paper had extinguished the flames of another labour confrontation, this time with the union of the paper’s product review site, the Wirecutter, which culminated in a walk-out by Wirecutter staff. In response to the union’s demands for better pay and terms, the NYT slow-walked negotiations for two years in an apparent effort to derail the negotiations — despite retaining strong revenue and cash reserves. “Hey Gray Lady, time to pay me! What’s appalling? Bosses stalling!” members of the three Times unions chanted in a rally outside the NYT building.

In his essay, Applebaum singled out Amazon, Walmart and Google as hotbeds for union strife — but the battle for workers’ rights at the NYT is of a very different magnitude: it has been raging for almost a century. Almost immediately after the country’s premier news union, American Newspaper Guild (now the NewsGuild), was founded in 1933, the NYT took a harsh anti-union stance, not only refusing to allow its employees to organise but going so far as to deploy a network of spies to track employees engaging in union activities. When a pro-union communist flier was found in the newsroom amid early efforts to unionise, NYT Managing Editor Edwin James wrote to publisher Arthurs Hays Sulzberger: “The spies report that some of the auditing people are back of this. Maybe it will amuse [NYT corporate auditor] Mr. Weinstock to try to find out who.”

The revelation about a spy network at the NYT followed an investigation into the paper by the National Labor Relations Board, brought by the American Newspaper Guild. The Guild had charged that the NYT violated the Wagner Act by intimidating and discriminating against pro-union employees. Though James retorted that the term “spies” was used jokingly and that “voluntary informant” was a more accurate term, the paper’s general manager, Julius Ochs Adler, testified that the paper indeed had run an “espionage system” (though Adler claimed it had been mothballed). Sulzberger, however, defended the paper’s espionage against its employees, testifying that it used the tactic “to avoid raising issues with the Guild”.

The National Labor Relations Board trial erupted after a group of NYT reporters agitating for unionisation were either transferred to different departments or summarily fired. One of the most important cases involved the paper’s informal spy-catcher, Harry Weinstock, who had repeatedly questioned a newly hired assistant named Grace Porter about her communist sympathies and affiliations (she denied being a communist) after Weinstock discovered she was involved in meetings to unionise. After Weinstock reassured her that the NYT, as a liberal paper, had no issue employing communists, Porter was transferred, put on half time (slashing her salary by 40%) and, shortly thereafter, fired. (Note that the NYT was using insinuations about communism to silence union-related dissent a decade before Joseph McCarthy began his communist witch hunts.)

At least two other similar cases were examined by the National Labor Relations Board, including that of Fred Jaegar, a reporter and one of the organisers of a smaller guild at the paper, who was accused by the NYT of not working hard enough and showing up late multiple times a month, despite his frequently staying late at the office. Jaegar was subject to extreme scrutiny before being transferred to “a job at which he could not possibly succeed”, according to the National Labor Relations Board investigation. He was then fired.

While we might look to figures like Weinstock as lone crusaders, the reality is the most pernicious argument against unionising the newsroom came from Arthur Hays Sulzberger himself. On this question, Sulzberger took a position that made organised labour and good journalism completely incompatible, arguing that a Guild shop (one that would require all employees to be members of the union) covering editorial roles would cause bias in the NYT news reporting as, in Sulzberger’s view, allowing unions in news organisations risked “polluting the well-spring of editorial objectivity”. This was quite a claim: not merely that unionising was bad for business, but that it was antithetical to journalism itself.

Sulzberger would pass this sentiment onto his son Arthur Ochs Sulzberger (grandfather to today’s publisher) whose attitude towards unions, the NYT noted in Sulzberger’s obituary, “ranged from annoyance to hostility”. This attitude would have significant consequences for the company, in particular on one occasion that inadvertently shifted the balance of power towards disempowered workers.

In 1972, Betsy Wade, the first female news editor at the NYT, began working with arts columnist Grace Glueck to force the NYT to change its practices towards female employees. Despite Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on sex, the NYT had no women on its masthead or among its ten business-side vice presidents. Women were also paid on average $59 a week (about $400 in today’s money) less than the paper’s male employees.

Glueck and Wade formed the Women’s Caucus at the NYT, seeking to use the influence of the Times Guild to drive change. Perhaps not to their surprise, the NYT refused to engage. After two years of NYT stalling, the Women’s Caucus filed a lawsuit, which the paper quickly settled, setting a major precedent for women’s rights at news organisations.

How does the NYT reconcile such chequered past — and present — on organised labour with its own editorial positions? The answer is simple. Although we refer to the New York Times as if it’s a single thing, in fact there are two entities that get conflated: the New York Times newsroom and the New York Times Company. As a Times software engineer elegantly put it in last year: “The newsroom is responsible for the primary product of the Times, but there’s an entirely separate business side to the organisation. That’s the side making these decisions. It’s not the newsroom calling the shots. When we think of the NYT’s leadership, it’s not a writer or editor making that decision — it’s the chief executive officer.”

In the case of the NYT’s most recent labour flap, the current publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, along with the company’s CEO, decided that the NYT would not voluntarily recognise the Tech Guild and called for union elections to be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board — the same body Sulzberger’s ancestor testified before nearly a century ago. As the NewsGuild has pointed out, the Times had previously thrown its editorial weight behind laws designed to allow majority sign-up to a union as legally binding, writing in a 2007 editorial that employers who reject the majority’s signatures often leverage “the time before the vote to pressure employees to rethink their decision to unionise”.

Yet this is exactly what the NYT is accused of doing with the Tech Guild. In one of the more hardline tactics, the NYT has since pressed employees into captive audience meetings, where management representatives spend an hour or more explaining to staff why unionising will be bad for them.

But as efforts to unionise heat up, the question now is how long the NYT can play this double role. It’s been doing for almost a century. But at some point soon, the practice of preaching labour virtue while practising capitalist vice will no longer be tenable.

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