Where We Work

The Guild at The New York Times:
decades of struggle and achievement

Ever since it was born amid the Great Depression, the Newspaper Guild has made giant strides in improving the lives of its members at The New York Times.

Today, confronting unprecedented upheaval in the newspaper industry, compounded by the greatest recession since the Depression, the Guild endures as a bulwark for members.

Pay scales at The Times continue to reign as the pacesetter for newspapers across the nation, as do the many other benefits and protections in the Guild contract.

The Guild also provides essential health insurance coverage and pensions through federally authorized joint union-management funds -- often giving members better benefits than for most managerial employees.

In the era of Internet competition and newspaper retrenchment, “being involved in the Guild is more important than ever as we work to protect the vital interests of our members,” said William O’Meara, president of the Guild’s New York local and a former union staff representative for The Times.

Among its many provisions, the union contract sets job titles and guarantees minimum pay scales and raises. It provides for advance notice of schedule changes, preserves merit raises and guarantees overtime rates, days off, compensatory time, night differential, holidays and vacations.

The contract also authorizes leaves for illness, disability, maternity, bereavement, jury duty, the military, the Peace Corps and Vista. It provides oversight for job health and safety, college merit scholarships for children of members, job equipment, expense reimbursements, legal representation for journalists, reprint fees, death benefits and transportation insurance.

Guild-sponsored benefits often exceed what the company gives its own managerial employees. For example, nonunion employees are charged substantially more for their health insurance, often with skimpier coverage. And the company eliminated health care benefits for future management-level retirees.

During the more profitable early 2000s, the Guild protected members with no-layoff guarantees. And during later budget cutbacks, the Guild negotiated voluntary buyout packages with three weeks of severance for each year of service (up to two years’ pay) – more than the company gave to departing managers.

When management repeatedly refused to address rising health care costs in the company's subsidy to the joint union-management benefits fund, the Guild came to the rescue. After polling members, the Guild devised a solution that combined efficiency, savings, revised benefits and a partial pay raise diversion, approved by a membership vote late in 2008. Meanwhile, management imposed harsh cuts on nonunion employees, who had no voice in the process.

At the heart of the Guild contract is a grievance procedure – a concept that publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger rejected outright in the 1930s – through which the union raises issues and members seek redress.

The Grievance Committee also defends members in disciplinary cases. The Guild does not condone misconduct or poor performance. But the Guild investigates such cases to see if the complaint is correct, if the proposed penalty fits the alleged offense, whether the employee is unfairly singled out, if there are mitigating circumstances and whether supervisors issued warnings and guidance.

A classic example of Guild intervention: Supervisors placed a veteran employee, with an otherwise spotless record, under special absentee supervision because of several Monday absences. The Guild discovered that the member was undergoing dialysis on weekends so he would not miss work, but sometimes the treatment left him too weak to return on Monday. When the Guild informed management of the full story, he was removed from absentee control.

Performance evaluations are a sensitive subject, and the Guild has negotiated protections like ensuring ample time to review an evaluation before meeting with a supervisor and the right to respond in writing. Members are encouraged to seek advice and help from union officers.

One apprentice reporter, threatened with termination, complained that his assignments had not allowed him to demonstrate his ability. He won a second chance and went on to become a prize-winning staff writer.

Essential to the Guild’s success is an informed and supportive membership and the efforts of volunteer officers. They include the shop stewards and elected unit officers, delegates to the Guild’s Local Representative Assembly and Executive Committee, whose names and photos appear on this Web site.

Under the contract, the top two officers are released half time from their staff jobs to attend to union duties. They are the unit chair, currently Grant Glickson, and the grievance chair, currently Mindy Matthews. They are based in the Times Guild office, Room 28W4-222, near the credit union on the 28th floor of The Times headquarters. The phone number is 212-556-1030.

Now learn about the Guild’s heroic history: the long struggle to unionize The Times in which the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, fought the Guild and early organizers were fired, the union’s internal battle over Communism, pioneering women and minority Guild leaders, tumultuous strikes and winning the first union contract for employees producing a newspaper Web site. 

 

Overcoming a publisher's opposition,
a white-collar union enters The Times

An election tally from the Guild’s 1940 archives captures a pivotal event that forever changed life at The New York Times, when commercial workers voted 418 to 198 to unionize with the Guild.

That breakthrough culminated years of struggle against management opposition in which The Times fired or demoted some staff members for union activity. Later the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered them reinstated with full back pay.

The first contract in 1941 gave members raises, a 40-hour workweek, overtime, holidays, severance pay, maternity leave and other benefits. Soon after, Guild contracts were expanded to cover the news staff and other departments.

“I was hired at $30 a week, and when my first paycheck arrived it was for $32.50,” recalled Susan Ingraham, a circulation staff member in the 1940s. “I was surprised and was told by one of the women that I got that extra $2.50 because ‘the union went to bat for us.’” Ingraham joined and became a steward.

Many struggles lay ahead, including strikes and lockouts, as the Guild fought to improve the lot of members – the mission that continues today.

The size and prestige of the Times unit propelled it into prominence in the New York Guild local and the parent international union.

“The Times contract is often used as a model by other locals,” said Barry Lipton, a former Times ad salesman and the local’s longest-serving president, at nearly 23 years, before retiring in 2007.

Historic forces swirled around the Guild from its birth. Amid the grinding Depression, newspapers demanded long hours for meager salaries and fired workers at will, and The Times imposed pay cuts. Overtime pay, the five-day week and pensions were unheard of in the news business. A Brooklyn Eagle reporter working undercover in a garment sweatshop discovered that it paid her more than the Eagle.

In 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt took office, and his New Deal fostered unionism, his National Recovery Administration pushed publishers to adopt wage standards – and journalists in Ohio began organizing.

Action quickly spread to New York as Heywood Broun in his World-Telegram column called for a “union of reporters.” Local and national Guilds formed almost overnight.

Broun became president, and two Times reporters were top leaders: Jonathan Eddy, the Guild’s first secretary and full-time officer, and James Kieran, who covered FDR and popularized the term “brain trust.”

Newspapers had long dealt with production craft unions like the typesetters, but never white-collar workers. Though some Guild members sought a union limited to journalists, it soon embraced a wider scope and switched from the craft-union American Federation of Labor (AFL) to the broader Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The fledgling Guild won contracts at local papers like the Daily News, the Post, the Mirror, the Amsterdam News and dozens more around the country.

But the grand prize – The Times – proved elusive. Members there had signed up immediately, and Guild leaders met sporadically with management starting in 1934, but to no avail. In an early skirmish, the Times’s Wide World Photos staff voted 72 to 27 for the Guild in 1938, but that victory turned pyrrhic as The Times stalled and sold the subsidiary to The Associated Press.

For the main staff, management was obstinate. Arthur Hays Sulzberger disputed the Guild’s claim of representing the staff. He rejected a proposed grievance committee as “impossible for us to accept.” It was also “unnecessary,” he testified to the NLRB, because workers could always appeal to him.

Sulzberger also adamantly opposed any union membership requirement, even demanding that the Guild forever relinquish its legal right to seek such a clause. With an all-union staff, he warned, “objective presentation of the news is impossible.”

Such intransigence led the NLRB to rule in 1940 that The Times had violated the law with unfair labor practices. The board singled out Sulzberger, saying he “himself participated in the respondents’ interference with and restraint and coercion of its employees.”

Shortly after, the commercial staff voted in the Guild. But a vote by news and editorial workers was postponed by a belated rival bid from an AFL union. The Guild won that contest in 1941, with 295 votes to 202 for the other union and 38 for neither. The next year maintenance and security workers voted in the Guild, by a unanimous 123 to 0.

Communist influence was a searing issue, often raised by employers denouncing unions. Indeed, many party adherents served as effective labor organizers in the CIO and in the Northeast – including in the Guild. Many union members complained that the Guild was being dragged into endorsing every twist and turn of Soviet foreign policy.

At The Times, most of the Communist enthusiasts were concentrated in the commercial department, with no evidence of party attempts to influence news coverage.

Eventually anti-Communist candidates won control of the national Guild in 1941 and of the New York local in 1947, purging party supporters from union office.

McCarthyism reprised the issue in the 1950s. One Congressional informant claimed there were 126 card-carrying Reds in The Times Sunday Department – which had only 87 employees. Eventually he confessed to concocting his testimony. But The Times questioned its news employees about Communist ties, and two were fired for refusing to answer.

After World War II, social changes again buffeted The Times and the Guild. As people flocked to suburbia and television competed for mass media attention, the number of city dailies eventually dwindled from 11 to 3.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, a series of newspaper strikes and lockouts, usually started by other unions and papers, roiled the industry amid cold-type automation and craft union fights over staffing as their power declined.

The shortest Guild strike, lasting six and a half hours in 1981, protested the introduction of a new, lower tier of pay scales. The worst shutdown lasted 114 days, in 1962-3. Some strikes achieved major advances, notably the 1965 creation of the Guild-Times Pension Fund, which has grown to about $250 million.

Equal opportunity is a Guild ideal, and women and minorities have held top posts in the unit and the local for decades.

In the 1940s Jerre Smoot served as the Times unit’s first chairwoman and boasted of winning 20 percent raises and the first $100 minimum weekly pay scale. Later chairs included Joan Cook and Lena Williams. In the 1970s Don Barker was the first black chairman, followed by Williams. From 1979 to 1983, Betsy Wade was the New York local’s first woman president and also an international vice president.

In the landmark Women’s Caucus federal suit against The Times in the 1970s, the Guild provided crucial payroll data that proved systemic shortchanging. “It was extremely important,” said Wade, the head of the caucus and lead plaintiff. The suit was settled for $350,000 and a Times pledge to promote more women.

The Guild paid legal fees for a similar 1970s suit filed by minority staff members that was settled for $1.8 million. Later the Guild extended its non-discrimination clauses to protect sexual orientation and gender expression.

In the modern era, as The Times leaped from paper onto the Internet, the Guild is still at the cutting edge. In 1995 it won a contract at Times Digital, making it the nation’s first unionized newspaper website. While Times Digital was set up as a separate entity, its staffers now work along side newspaper side employees.

The Guild’s mission, forged by Heywood Broun, Jonathan Eddy, James Kieran, Susan Ingraham and all the other pioneers, continues as vital for its members as ever.