The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York Times staffers walk out en masse; first time in decades

The work stoppage follows months of negotiations over pay and other issues -- and a frustration by union workers that they have not shared the fruits of the company’s recent success

Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke to demonstrating staffers on Dec. 8, as negotiations foundered over replacing an employee contract that expired in March 2021. (Video: AP)

New York Times employees walked off the job Thursday after more than 1,100 pledged to stop work in one of the most dramatic labor disputes in decades at one of the nation’s premier news organizations.

Editors who usually spend their time editing reporters’ news stories were doing the writing themselves — on topics from covid to the war in Ukraine — while typically scoop-driven reporters were taking a pass on the major stories erupting on their beats. Outside the Times’s Midtown Manhattan offices, employees waved protest signs next to an inflatable rat, chanting, “We make the paper, we make the profits.”

The spectacle even extended to the Times’s popular online game Wordle, with skirmishes breaking out on Twitter over whether sharing one’s daily score was equivalent to crossing a picket line.

“This is not a decision we take lightly,” the employee union wrote in a message to Times readers on Thursday. “We know you count on us all for vital news and information.”

Members of the New York Times Guild, which covers about 1,400 workers, including non-newsroom departments such as advertising and security, said the 24-hour protest action was the culmination of months of frustration over contract negotiations on a range of issues, particularly compensation. The previous employee contract expired in March 2021, and the union accused the company of failing to “bargain in good faith.”

Meredith Kopit Levien, the chief executive of the Times, said Wednesday that the company has shown a “clear commitment” to negotiating a contract “that provides Times journalists with substantial pay increases, market-leading benefits and flexible working conditions.”

More than half of paper’s newsroom pledged to walk out, essentially sacrificing a day of pay. Participants included “some of the most famous bylines in the world,” sports reporter Jenny Vrentas said at Thursday’s rally, as well as lower-paid colleagues who include temporary workers, security guards and young fellows.

Although executive editor Joe Kahn pledged that the Times would still “produce a robust report,” he acknowledged in a Wednesday note to staff that “it will be harder than usual.” In addition to leaning on editors and overseas staff who are not covered by the union, the paper published work that staffers had prepared in advance.

“A news alert with my name on it just went out,” reporter Annie Karni tweeted, about her story on the congressional approval of a same-sex marriage bill. “It was a pre-written story ahead of an expected vote. I stand with the guild!”

Others stayed on the job, though, including two White House reporters, who covered breaking news about Brittney Griner’s negotiated release from a Russian prison.

It was the first major labor protest at the Times in decades; a 1981 strike lasted for just 6½ hours. In 2017, Times staffers staged a brief lunchtime walkout to protest staff cuts and other changes to copy-editing operations.

The dispute comes as several media companies are laying off employees, citing a challenging economic environment. The Times, though, is widely considered one of the industry’s rare success stories. Executives said in their latest earnings call that they had grown the newsroom and projected a total adjusted operating profit of between $320 million and $330 million by the end of the year.

Some staffers argue that they should share more of the fruits of this recent success, after enduring stagnant wages and belt-tightening during leaner times for the company.

“That’s where it feels more than just a matter of disagreement on numbers, but really a slap in the face,” said film critic A.O. Scott. “We have devoted so much of our time, energy, work and love to this paper, which seems unwilling to recognize or to reward that contribution.”

In negotiations earlier this week, the guild sought average pay raises of 5.5 percent in both 2023 and 2024, while the company countered with two years of 3 percent increases. The two sides also disagree on minimum salaries and how much to pay in retroactive bonuses that would cover the period since the old contract expired.

“The Times is in good financial shape now,” investigative reporter Jennifer Valentino-DeVries said, “and we think that our work should be valued more highly than what they’re currently offering.”

Levien, in her note to staff, argued that management’s “great care” in restoring the Times to economic health enabled the newsroom’s recent growth and that the company already offers “best in class pay and benefits.”

Other staffers have expressed concern that some colleagues are earning salaries that have not kept up with the cost of living in one of the nation’s most expensive cities — some taking second jobs or dipping into retirement savings to make ends meet — and that all have been hurt by wages that haven’t kept up with inflation.

The two sides also haven’t agreed on issues concerning the performance-review system for employees and remote-work policies.

Times employees said they rescheduled interviews and delayed work on major projects in advance of the walkout.

“It’s painful,” investigative and politics correspondent Nick Confessore said. “Our duty is to lean into the story and not put our proverbial typewriters down.” But he said staffers feel strongly that their actions are necessary to make sure that jobs at the Times remain financially viable options for “the young people with talent from any background.”

Union members also urged readers to express solidarity with their cause by boycotting Times products for the day — including the addictive Wordle game. (Some players, including Times employees, even explored time zone-related workarounds that would let them play while honoring the midnight to midnight boycott.)

For the first time, contract negotiations took place over Zoom — allowing more staffers to watch the company’s lawyers respond to guild arguments and probably increasing the newsroom fervor for this week’s labor action.

Employees threatened a work stoppage if a contract deal was not reached by Dec. 8, in a letter sent to senior executives a week ago. As the deadline loomed, the two sides started to reach agreement on some issues but remained at odds on the topic of wages.

“Strikes typically happen when talks deadlock,” Kahn wrote Wednesday evening. “That is not where we are today. … We continue to trade proposals and make progress toward an agreement.”

While the union hasn’t set next steps, at other media companies, day-long stoppages are a step toward longer strikes. For now, though, Times employees plan to return to work Friday.

Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.