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Troubled Times: When workers disagree
The New York Times and the war of letters
Last month, arguably the world’s most famous newspaper found itself embroiled in a public conflict. The New York Times (NYT) received a letter (Letter #1) signed by over a thousand contributors and staffers accusing the paper of editorial bias in how it covers transgender issues. In short, Letter #1 alleges the NYT has covered issues related to trans children excessively and omitted relevant details about quoted sources.
Less than a week later, there was another letter (Letter #2). This one was signed by dozens of NYT journalists, and addressed to the president of the NewsGuild of New York, the trade union which represents many NYT employees. The president had suggested that Letter #1 should be considered as raising concerns related to workplace conditions (and thus protected under law). Letter #2 rejected this argument, saying that such logic would threaten journalistic independence, and suggested that the coverage in question had been factual and accurate.1 For now, it appears senior decision-makers at the NYT align with Letter #2.
Setting aside the substance of this debate, the NYT debacle raises some interesting questions about employee activism and worker voice.2 When we read headlines and reports of employee activism, the demands made tend to come across as the will of the employees at large, but this is often not the case. “Employees Call on Deloitte to Stop Working With ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]”; yet a survey suggested a majority of employees preferred continuing its work with the agency. “Disney employees are staging walkouts over Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill”; yet the walkouts were followed by an open letter from other employees criticising the company for then taking a stance on the issue.
Are companies damned if they do, damned if they don’t? What does this mean for employees trying to change their organisations from within?
The end game of employee activism
As employees increasingly weigh in on the sustainability and ethical choices of their companies, disagreements are bound to emerge. There are many who would argue that this is precisely why employees should stay out of these issues, and confine any workplace organising to traditional issues such as pay and working conditions, where there is likely to be more consensus.
I believe such thinking is mistaken for two reasons:
Having some degree of influence over what you work on and how it impacts the world should be seen as a basic expectation of dignity at work. Not everyone has the luxury of a variety of options when it comes to where they work. Workers should not have to choose between working for their community’s main employer and raising concerns about that employer’s pollution of the local environment.
Enlightened employees changing their companies from within appears to be one of the strongest, underutilised levers for building a more just and sustainable world. More and more companies have pointed to employee sentiment as motivating an improvement in their practices, and survey evidence suggests this will only grow.
There is a tension between these two reasons; (2) suggests that “legitimate” employee activism is that which advances just causes in the eye of the beholder. Of course, as the NYT case demonstrates, what is right and just in any situation is subjective, so it is not a very useful principle for navigating disagreements. (1) suggests that the more legitimate cause will be the one which is backed by the greater number of employees.3
This latter view may sometimes result in outcomes with which many will disagree – witness, for example, the history of trade unions for fossil fuel workers opposing climate action. But with strong majorities of employees favouring better environmental and social practices by their employers, this is still the more likely to lead to substantial and durable improvements on the status quo, while avoiding domination by a vocal minority.
A tad obvious, perhaps. But how should this affect employee activism and companies’ responses to it?
For workers, try to avoid top-first organising, where a small number of workers decide on asks of management, and then call on their colleagues to support these pre-determined demands.
Instead, consult widely with colleagues on what their priorities are, and gain an understanding of their stance on the issue that motivated your organising in the first place. Are they supportive, neutral, or opposed?
Seek to institutionalise your organising efforts, whether that be through a trade union, some form of workers’ council, or something else. Make democratic governance of the employee body a feature of whichever route you choose.
Don’t go public prematurely. A small group going to the media with their concerns may generate some headlines and cause a temporary PR headache, but is unlikely to lead to lasting change alone, and heightens the risk of retaliation against leading organisers.
All of the above takes longer, but will result in greater and more durable worker power and thus a greater ability to see employee preferences put into practice. Without it, you risk being dismissed as an unrepresentative minority, or seeing another set of employees contradict your demands, allowing management to simply align themselves with the employee group that best represents their own preferences.
Of course, all of this is not going to be possible or desirable in every workplace “campaign”, in which case the simple tips are: choose an issue which is likely to unify rather than one which is highly partisan; get a sense-check on your letter, petition, etc., via 1-on-1 conversations with a range of staff and informal surveys if possible; get as many numbers on your side as you can!
For companies, seek employee views proactively rather than as a kneejerk response to a controversial incident. It will lead to less heated exchanges and an environment where workers are more prepared to share their views. It might feel like opening pandora’s box, but if your employees favour a course of action different to you, that’s information you need to know. A company will struggle to deliver on its goals if its workers aren’t behind it.
Letter #2 was a rebuke to the Guild for seeking to interfere with internal editorial decisions and not a response to Letter #1 per se. However it seems reasonable to assume that the signatories to Letter #2 largely disagree with the signatories to Letter #1.
Though, for preciseness, most signatories to Letter #1 were not employees of the NYT; many were contract-based contributors, or NYT subscribers.
For you lovers of moral philosophy, you could say (1) is a deontological approach, while (2) is utilitarian.