From Strikewave | Interview with David Muto of the New Yorker Union
Last week, union members at the New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Ars Technica voted to authorize a strike, with 98 percent of members voting in favor across the three units. All three units are bargaining their first contracts and have hit similar obstacles with their parent company, media giant Conde Nast. The core issue, of course, is the money: a livable wage, a decent salary floor, and annual raises that keep up with the cost of living in New York City.
In the New Yorker Union's negotiations in particular, which are now entering their third year of negotiations, pressure has been building. Workers walked off the job for 24 hours earlier this year, and in September picketed the magazine's high-profile (and very lucrative) festival in protest of management's intransigence over just cause protections. In solidarity, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who were booked to discuss "the future of progressivism," threatened to drop out of the festival. Management caved—not only at the New Yorker, but at other NewsGuild shops as well: shortly after the New Yorker Union won just cause, the unions at Wirecutter, BuzzFeed News, and Ziff Davis secured protections as well.
On Saturday, union members from all three units rallied in front of One World Trade Center, where Conde Nast is headquartered. Strikewave caught up with David Muto, vice chair of the New Yorker union, a couple of days later.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Strikewave (SW): How did you feel about the rally?
David Muto (DM): I felt great. It was the first time seeing a lot of my colleagues in over a year. So that was itself just a moving moment. But we've been negotiating this contract for two and a half years now, which is absolutely crazy. And the 98% "yes" vote, along with the turnout, and the fiery speeches, and the vibes, it felt like the culmination of a lot of organizing and a lot of energy. It was powerful.
SW: Why were there three different units all voting together on this authorization?
David Muto: We all took three separate authorization votes. We didn't actually all vote as one combined unit or anything like that. But the timing coincided, because we're all at about the same bargaining point.
The New Yorker union started bargaining in November of 2018. Pitchfork started in maybe November or December of 2019. Ars Technica started maybe a month or two after that. So we've been bargaining longer than they have, but because of the pace at the table, we've ended up all in the same place. We all put down wages on the table at around the same time. We're not exactly aligned on every issue, but we're all on roughly the same timeline. It made sense for us all to do it at around the same time.
There's power in having not just one overwhelming strike vote but three. It was important to show not only show our individual magazines how seriously we take this and how serious we are about getting a contract, but also that Conde Nast sees that. There's hopefully a lot of power in not just us having that overwhelming majority. The other two—their numbers were also amazing. Pitchfork was 100%. Ars Technica was 92%. Their units are smaller than ours, but it's great to see 90 plus percent in any union, in a unit of any size.
SW: Is it fair to say that you've all arrived at a similar impasse with Conde? Or are the sticking points different in each case?
David Muto: They're slightly different in each case, but the big sticking point, of course, is wages. That's true for all three shops at this point. That's the overwhelming issue for all of us, that motivated most of the members toward voting so overwhelmingly in favor of a strike.
SW: What happens if Conde starts to try to play the different units off each other and gives one unit a much better offer than the others? How much room do you have to maneuver and continue to act in solidarity with the other units? If I were a cynical media executive trying to break up three strong unions, that might be something that I would consider.
DM: We obviously stand together and stand behind one another. And we would cross that bridge when we came to it. But the responses that all three shops have been getting, the counters that we've been getting from the company, are very similar—not just on wages, but especially on wages. So it's not as if, so far, we're seeing that Conde is much more willing to raise wages at the New Yorker than they are at the other brands, or vice versa. It's the same reluctance to make any systemic change at any of the shops. So I think it's fairly unlikely that one of us would get a much better offer. This is what we've seen at the table over the past two years: the proposals are pretty much all more or less aligned among all of the shops. If we did come to that point, we would stand behind one another. But at this point, it strikes me as somewhat unlikely that we would get to a real discrepancy between what the company was offering.
SW: At the rally, there was a great sign and a great slogan, "You can't eat prestige," in reference, obviously, to the prestige of the New Yorker magazine. You can't pay rent with prestige; you can't pay off loans with prestige. But are there ways in which you are thinking about how to leverage the prestige of the magazine against the bosses? Is there a particular strategic value that workers at the New Yorker magazine have by virtue of being at the New Yorker magazine?
DM: So, we originally proposed a $65,000 wage floor unit wide. The other two shops did as well. We've since come down to $63,500. The company countered originally with $45,000 and they've since come up to $50,000. But their wage proposals overall are still very poor; very few people in our shop would actually receive significant raises under their proposal. Our members deserve a living wage—whether it's $65,000 or whether it's $63,500—not because we're special, but because all workers deserve a living wage. We know that a lot of working class people in New York City make much less than that. But our message is that all workers, including us, deserve a real living wage.
That said, there's a couple of layers to this. The company spent a lot of time, especially in the beginning, saying, "This is the best magazine in the country. Why should we have to change our practices?" This came up a lot, during any number of issues, but it came up around the fight over just cause. And we're saying that we are workers, we deserve the same protections that all workers do, but also, if our bosses are saying that this is the best magazine in the country—and we would agree, we love working there, we think it's great, we think it's the best—we think that the best magazine can afford to pay its workers better.
If they claim that this is the best magazine, then they should be able to pay commensurate wages and to come to an agreement on a strong contract overall. The most prestigious magazine in the country should easily be able to agree to a strong contract that sets its workers up for long term growth.
SW: In the case of just cause, winning that specific fight had implications not just for your workplace, but for other media workplaces.
DM: That's honestly the thing that I am taking the most optimism from. We at the New Yorker union, we knew that winning just cause would be big for us. We knew that it would hopefully be big for the other two Conde shops, which eventually also did get just cause. But I personally had no idea that it was going to have this domino effect at the other at the other NewsGuild shops that were in negotiations. But it really did! It was quite clear to us that our win set a precedent. It's hard for me not to hope that that's the case with our contract fight overall.
SW: One of the things I'm always interested in talking to other media workers organizing in the industry is the way in which our labor struggles overlap and interact with other struggles in other industries. Like right now, student workers at Columbia are on strike—those are exploited "brain workers" at a very prestigious institution that is refusing to budge for years on end on very reasonable demands about being paid enough money to be able to live in New York City. This is complicated by the fact that in the media and in journalism, we have these weird norms about objectivity and independence. There can be a remove from feeling too much affinity for other struggles. How do you reckon with those kinds of questions?
DM: Well, first of all, I guess I would say, sometimes I feel like I don't even have time to reckon with those questions. When you're in the tangle of a long running labor fight, there's so much to do. We spent so much time organizing and preparing for this strike vote. We just don't have time ever to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
SW: Also, you still have to do your job.
DM: That too! And as a union officer, it's almost another part time, or sometimes another full-time job, on top of a full-time job. But after the just cause domino effect, it's undeniable that we hope that the same happens. Now more than ever our members are aware that we are part of the labor movement. We do work for a magazine whose logo is a literal dandy with a top hat, but we are part of the labor movement.
Oddly, one of the results of the company opposing just cause so hard is that our union built a lot of organizing muscle and became very clued in to the just cause fight broadly. It really made me and a lot of other union members recognize that what we do really does have ripple effects. Sometimes those are really clear, like with the just cause fight, and then sometimes they're a little bit more abstract.
In our union chat thread, when the Hunts Point strike was happening in the Bronx, people were really fired up about that. That's something that I take a lot of heart in, too. People realize that our fight is to better our own lives and the lives of our colleagues, but also, hopefully, that what we're doing has long term and wide ranging effect. Of course, I don't think that that's the number one thing on people's minds, because we are so caught up in this intense fight at the moment, but I think that people are also seeing that. Especially since several of our members have either gone to or been TAs or research assistants at Columbia. That fight is very much tied to ours. There's just so much overlap when it comes to media and academia—this mindset of being encouraged to take what you're given and be thankful for it, to be made to feel lucky for even having a job. All of those things are tied together. I hope people are thinking about how they're all connected. I think increasingly they are.
As with all workers in a dispute like this, we obviously want to avoid having to actually go out on strike. So we hope that the overwhelming vote brings the company to the table, and has shown them how seriously, we take this. That said, 98% is undeniable. It's a mandate. We're ready to go out on strike if we have to. But I'm hopeful that we can avoid it. It's going to take a lot of work. It's going to be a pretty crazy next month or so. We'll see.
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