On Wednesday, the staff of New York magazine announced that they were unionizing with the NewsGuild. The bargaining unit includes around 160 full and part time workers, from traditionally (more) secure jobs like writers and editors to those in the industry’s more precarious positions like fact checkers and copy editors. Almost 80 percent of eligible workers signed cards. “We believe that unionizing is the best way to address our grievances in the workplace and allow us to continue publishing stories as honest, gritty, and exceptional as this city,” read the letter that the unit sent to management.
In response, New York Magazine staff writer Jonathan Chait tweeted: “Just want to note that I’ve worked under many ownership situations in my career, and Pam Wasserstein’s leadership is the best I’ve ever experienced.”
There was, unsurprisingly, strong backlash. Chait responded to one of his critics by characterizing the union’s letter’s this way: “If there’s a statement in my name crapping all over her, I feel the need to express my opinion about her work.”
On Wednesday night, Chait expanded on his thoughts on the union in a lengthy Facebook post. Here’s a section of the post in which he explains specifically why he was against the unionizing drive at New York (emphasis mine):
I had several long conversations with organizers about the specific conditions in place at New York. Those conversations did not give me confidence that the union had a sensible strategy.
I think there are ways to push for higher salaries for lower-earning workers at New York, and I support this even at the cost of more established staffers like myself. I don’t believe the union would accomplish this better than a simple demand focused on this priority would.
What’s more, there are real risks to the entire institution that a union drive would bring. These risks are elevated when you do not have a profitable company, and when you depend upon a benevolent ownership, which we currently enjoy, to finance it as a public trust. I did get some reassurances about those risks and they attenuated my concerns, but did not eliminate them. I don’t know how this will work out, but I think the risks outweigh the benefits. And to be clear, those risks are borne by everybody on staff, top to bottom.
Chait is arguing here that he broadly agrees with the goals of the union—higher wages for those at the bottom—but that he doesn’t believe in their methods. (Likely a familiar argument to those who have organized their workplaces.) Yet he doesn’t give a reason why the alternative that he presents—“a simple demand focused on this priority”—would actually be more effective, or even possible without the organizing that comes hand-in-hand with a union drive. Collective action doesn’t just appear out of thin air (it takes hard, sustained work) and “simple demands” without the protection of a union can be risky for workers who are not well-established like Chait.
It’s likely that nothing I am saying here hasn’t already been said within New York’s newsroom as workers there organized: forming a union is never about a “simple demand,” it’s an understanding that democracy in the workplace is dynamic and holistic. But of course Chait must know that, because it’s all in the letter announcing New York’s union. Still, he nevertheless flattened those demands in his response. Higher wages are just one of many grievances outlined in the union’s letter:
For years, some employees have been paid well below media standards. Benefits constantly change and don’t meet our actual needs. Salaries vary significantly between people who hold the same position, and career development is either nonexistent or inadequate. Across the board, employees know the best chance to earn a raise or promotion is to get a job offer elsewhere. All of this only exacerbates an already troubling lack of diversity in our newsroom.
These issues are not just one “simple demand” for a pay raise. Workers are raising concerns about changing benefits, pay disparities, murky paths for career development, and lack of diversity in the newsroom. All of these inequities work in conversation with one another, and require a fight on multiple fronts. Many of these issues likely only came up and were shared among colleagues because of the union drive. It was only when Gawker Media workers (of which Jezebel was part, and remains a part of as the Gizmodo Media Group Union) started organizing that women realized they were getting paid less than their male counterparts. In the years since, that union along with a growing number of digital media unions, have forced difficult and necessary conversations about how our newsrooms operate and who is left behind by the current status quo. A union changes the balance of power around who gets heard and who gets ignored in these conversations. It’s a developing process, but as workers, our bosses exploit us under our noses all the time.
Chait should know this by now. When he worked at The New Republic, the publication that in many ways launched his career, Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s former literary editor for over three decades, sexually harassed his female colleagues. After those women went public with allegations against Wieseltier last October, Chait tweeted out their story, and commented that “Some people were exposed routinely to [Wieseltier’s] sexualized side, and others not at all.” He claimed that he was shocked and knew of no such harassment, which is entirely believable given the sexist culture overall at the magazine, his position, and the fact that the women at The New Republic depended on whisper networks that necessarily excluded men like Chait. Chait may have been in the dark, but few of his female colleagues were—which says something in and of itself. (Full disclosure: I was a staff writer at The New Republic, but never overlapped with Chait or Wieseltier.)
In other words, a widespread culture of sexual harassment was happening right under Chait’s nose. (Not to mention the magazine’s very open history of racism.) This was due, in large part, to the fact that his position as a white man on staff meant he could remain unaware of these issues. In the ensuing years, that position hasn’t changed. There is likely much that Chait does not know or see about the workplace conditions at New York, a much larger institution than The New Republic. So how can he be so sure that the large majority of his colleagues know less than him when it comes to making that workplace more equitable? In the safety of his position as an established writer, Chait has very little to lose in this organizing drive. His colleagues across the magazine have everything to gain.