Union or Woke Activist Group? New York Times Employees Raise Questions About Guild's Role in Recent Dismissals

New York Times
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February 12, 2021

"Journalists are not expendable," the New York Times Guild declared in July. "Employers are attempting to undermine our collective strength and security."

But not every member of the Guild believes the union is practicing what it preaches. The union’s handling of star science reporter Donald McNeil’s recent "resignation," according to several current and former Times staffers, is the latest indication that the Guild has been hijacked by a group of woke activists that is not only reluctant to defend unpopular members—but which frequently pressures management to fire them. 

"The people I’m supposed to go to if I have a problem with management are the same ones who might try to get me fired," one union member told the Washington Free Beacon. "The union is the last place I would go for support."

It seems counterintuitive for a union, designed explicitly to protect workers and ensure managers do not apply standards capriciously, to weigh in against its own members. The Guild has done so by exploiting provisions in U.S. labor law that protect workers who voice concerns about workplace "safety" -- and which help unions force out those who "harm" that safety.

McNeil’s departure provides a window into the dynamics at work. 

The 45-year Times veteran was an active union member. So were many of the employees who signed a letter to Times management demanding a more thorough investigation of his conduct after an initial probe led to a wrist slap. None of them publicly called for his firing, but the staffers issued their demand—framed as a matter of "accountability"—after management had already disciplined McNeil, creating pressure for harsher sanctions. 

That pressure didn’t come directly from the union, which never issued an institutional call for McNeil’s removal, so it didn’t run afoul of labor laws that require unions to represent their members. But it was members of the union, including Times reporter Davey Alba and cultural critic Amanda Hess, according to several people familiar with the pressure campaign, who were leading the charge.

"It is a charade to call this ‘accountability,’" one source said of the crusade, emphasizing that McNeil had already been held accountable when Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, reprimanded him months earlier.

Though McNeil technically resigned, Guild members made legal arguments for his firing. Alba argued that the union only has an "obligation to *represent* people in discipline and to follow due process." 

"We are not defense attorneys," Alba said in a tweet on Monday. "If someone harassed someone or acted in a matter deemed unacceptable, it can still count as cause."

Alba did not respond to requests for comment. Through a Times spokesman, Hess said the characterization of her involvement is "completely false."

"She has no idea what you're talking about," spokesman Jordan Cohen said.

The Guild had already issued a statement denouncing McNeil. "There’s never a moment when harmful racist rhetoric is acceptable," it said, in reference to McNeil’s using the n-word in a conversation about racial slurs. "While we continue to advocate for our members, we do so recognizing that we are one community that must work together to eradicate and fight injustice."

Reading between the lines, McNeil’s union was suggesting he deserved to be fired, and that it wouldn’t support him if he was. 

The campaign against McNeil also alleged that he had done harm. "Any reasonable observer knows he understood the power the slur contains and how harmful it can be," a letter signed by 150 Times staffers read. "[T]he company should now take the opportunity to review its policies and better assess the harm behavior like Mr. McNeil’s causes."

The appeal to harm and safety was deliberate. Under the National Labor Relations Act, businesses can’t discipline their employees for discussing workplace safety concerns. That gave management less room to resist the pressure campaign, while giving the union legal room to mount it.

Unions aren’t obligated to defend anybody they deem to have endangered the welfare of other members, a labor lawyer told the Free Beacon. If McNeil’s behavior caused harm, there was cause to fire him; if there was cause to fire him, the union wasn’t legally obligated to press his case. 

The union isn’t just failing to protect its members, in other words. It is exploiting U.S. labor law to oust them more efficiently. 

A representative for the union, Bill Baker, did not respond to a request for comment.

Similar dynamics were on display over the summer, when union activists said that an op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton (Ark.) arguing for the deployment of federal troops to quell riots put black staff "in danger." Its publication, the Guild alleged, was "an irresponsible choice" by the opinion desk, and "jeopardize[d] our journalists ability to work in the field safely."

Far from abandoning class warfare, then, the Times Guild has leaned into it. But it increasingly represents the interests of a new class, with new sensibilities and sensitivities. In 1947, the Guild purged communists from union office; today, it purges old-school liberals—many of whom are working class.

Staffers from blue-collar backgrounds tend to see the union as a safeguard of workers’ rights, not a forum for cultural grievance, sources said. But more privileged staffers tend to see it the other way around. For them, one former staffer told the Free Beacon, the union is "more as a political badge than a commitment to the rights of workers."

Privilege is not a rarity in legacy newsrooms. Nearly 52 percent of Times staff writers graduated from elite universities, and many come from wealthy families. With a few exceptions, most of these writers are unionized—meaning that many members of the Guild don’t need the job security it’s supposed to provide. 

The result, some sources said, is that defending workers has given way to defenestrating them, especially when they violate the taboos of well-to-do progressives.

The turmoil at the Times is thus a class war as much as a culture war. On one side are old-school, often middle-class staffers like McNeil with a commitment to objective journalism; on the other are a group of more affluent young staffers with a commitment to anti-racism, which has compelled them to turn against their colleagues. The New York Times union isn’t just obliterating objectivity; it is also smashing solidarity.

Published under: New York Times , Unions