Occupy Coverage Marginalized, As New York Times Staffers Mount Campaign For Economic Justice

Criticism of the Times usually involves outsiders challenging how news is covered. Now, insiders are speaking up about the way the paper is run. Has an outbreak of internal dissent led to a cut back on coverage of Occupy Protests?

Just days after Occupy movements across the nation launched their Spring struggle for economic justice on May Day, International Workers’ Day, management at the New York Times laid off 50 non-unionized workers from human resources, legal, finance and other corporate departments. The irony was not lost.

Perhaps cognizant of the impending internal layoffs, Times Editors chose to trivialize Occupy May Day actions in their own back yard, here in Manhattan (“At May Day Demonstrations, Traffic Jams and Arrests,” NYT, May 2), while providing better headlines for counterpart May Day activities in Europe (“Austerity Pain Fills Europe With Protests on May Day,” NYT, May 2).

Though, the Times has been assessed to support “the long-term interests of U.S. business” across both liberal and conservative policies by Professors Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson, authors of the book The Gatekeeper: 60 Years of Economics According to The New York Times, and so Times ambivalence towards an Occupy movement seeking redress for retrogressive measures that negatively impact people’s lives is perhaps symptomatic of their business bias.

This bias also appears in Times coverage of its own internal tensions where there have been rising conflicts between workers and management for more than a year. Reporting on the 50 layoffs, Brian Stelter described the workers’ loss as “reducing head-counts” while, in contrast, the “business side of The Times has suffered more severe cuts…” (New York Times Co. Lays Off 50 in Non-Newsroom Jobs, NYT, May 4).

Last October media and culture columnist David Carr called-out those industry “bonuses worthy of protest” and asked in his headline “Why Not Occupy Newsrooms?” (NYT, October 23, 2011). Of course Carr was criticizing, not the Times, but executive excess at the Gannett and Tribune news conglomerates. Just months after Carr’s article, and amid labor negotiations, Times management gave outgoing CEO Janet Robinson an obscene $24.4 million severance package.

News of Robinson’s severance package prompted more than 500 current and former Times employees to send a public letter to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. expressing their “profound dismay” and opposition to job loss, pension freezes and potential health insurance changes. Despite numerous attempts to negotiate a new contract, Times workers’ concerns have been marginalized and unfit to print within the pages of the paper that they produce.

Pushed to take action last March, Times workers conducted silent protests along the hallways of their building—lining up from Page One editorial meeting rooms to exits, standing in silence, forcing Editors into a “walk of shame”—the silence making tangible worker anger and demands for fiscal accountability. On April 26, almost 70 Times staffers protested the company’s annual shareholders meeting. And on May Day, Occupy Wall Street demonstrators held protests against the ruling 1% outside the Times building.

The Times bargaining unit of the Newspaper Guild represents 1,100 workers and has been operating without a new contract since March 31 last year. In a recent press release the Guild declared “For Less than 1 Severance Deal, Guild Seeks Times Pact for 1,100.” They argued that for much less than it cost to pay out Janet Robinson, their 1,100 Guild members would receive a year of fair wage increases and maintain their health and retirement benefits. Times management still refuses to sign a contract that would benefit its own workers and provides counter offers that the Times own labor reporter Steven Greenhouse has described as “draconian.”

Today’s labor struggle at the Times seems remarkably similar to the struggle against precarious conditions at the paper in the early part of the 20th Century during the Great Depression. In this period, Times workers suffered instability, long hours, threat of losing one’s job at a mangers’ will, non-payment for overtime, and no employer contributions to pension funds.

These conditions gave birth to the Guild in 1940, after “decades of struggle and achievement” and amid the “grinding Depression,” and that included opposition from the owning Sulzberger family who fired, demoted, and locked out workers for union activity (The Guild at The New York Times). These old themes are also central concerns for today’s Occupy movement.

Recent Times layoffs and CEO pay outs should incite both union and non-union worker calls for the Times-owning Sulzberger family and management to be accountable to their workers.

Perhaps Carr’s proposal to occupy the newsrooms should be considered. In Greece, where the ravages of economic crisis (exacerbated by austerity measures that seek to make the poor pay for a crisis they did not cause) hit much harder than here in the U.S., the second largest daily newspaper, Eleftherotypia, was filing for bankruptcy when more than 800 workers—including journalists, technicians, cleaners and clerks—occupied their workplace to self-manage the production of their own paper. This move has been widely supported by its readers.

Eleftherotypia is an unusual example but not unique. And although the Times is far from declaring bankruptcy, Times workers do share something in common with the self-managed Greek daily. You won’t read about either of them in the paper of record because both are struggling for economic justice and that does not advance long-term business interests.  

Leave a comment