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Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) think tank, may or may not be confirmed by the Senate as the Biden administration’s budget chief. Republicans and one conservative Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, may reject her based on her past of posting overly personal attacks against Republicans on Twitter. Those attacks also extended to independent socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, although it is expected that he’ll vote for her (Newsweek, 2/11/21).
The obvious angle much of the press is focused on is Republican complaints that Biden has appointed a partisan in-fighter while claiming to be pursuing national unity (CBS, 2/20/21; CNN, 2/22/21). It’s tempting to view the whole affair as another episode of finger pointing over “cancel culture,” as Republicans, who nominally object to angry social justice activists limiting the free speech of aggressive Twitter users, are now trying to do just that to someone on the other side of the aisle.
While it’s not an issue that is likely to torpedo her nomination, one part of her record should give pause to anyone concerned with how she would set economic policy when it comes to workers: her role an apparent attempt to bust a union of media workers.
CAP, under Tanden’s leadership, published ThinkProgress, a liberal-leaning news site covering many aspects of policy and politics—similar to Huffington Post or Politico, but with a clearer partisan anchoring. The ThinkProgress union was a unit of the Writers Guild of America East, which in recent years has moved beyond the film and television industry to organizing journalists in the digital media sector (FAIR.org, 6/18/19). The ThinkProgress union secured its first collective bargaining agreement in 2016, which included wage floors, revenue sharing, editorial independence and a just cause provision, the latter making it hard to fire workers.
The short version is, according to Talking Points Memo (9/10/19): CAP announced that it was shutting down the site, laying off union staffers, and then said it was going to relaunch the site days later. The union cried foul, seeing this as a ploy to simply cleanse the news organization of its union. In the wake of the backlash, CAP decided not to reopen the site, and archived its contents instead.
Politico (11/30/20) reported that a source close to Tanden denied union busting was at play in the shutdown of the site. “The Center for American Progress remained neutral during ThinkProgress‘ unionization drive,” according to the unnamed source, “and the site shut down because of declining ad revenue and social media algorithm changes, not due to the union.”
Media unionists weren’t convinced by this defense. Paul Blest of Splinter (9/10/19) put it this way:
In the end, CAP’s arrogant certainty that it could essentially borrow a line out of the Bustle playbook after stressing its support for unions for years and years resulted in public humiliation and less revenue. That’s little solace, of course, to the people who lost their jobs and those who spent years building ThinkProgress into one of the better sources of smart policy journalism in America.
If there’s any lesson to be gleaned from this, it’s that liberal think tanks like the Center for American Progress are not a friend to media workers, or workers in general. These places, and the people who run them, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to “unify” all of the various wings of the progressive and liberal movements (with a desire for less input from some wings than others, I imagine) under the banner of being on the same “team” against the Republican Party. But it ultimately didn’t matter that these bosses were liberal and nice…. The workers at this site still got jerked around for quite a long time before being unceremoniously dumped under the reasoning that the media industry just isn’t profitable enough.
This isn’t extraordinary. The liberal news outlet Vox was accused of union busting by workers there (Washington Examiner, 12/13/17). And although Vox eventually came around to recognizing the union (Variety, 1/11/18), the employer’s hardline stance in negotiating led to a one-day staff walkout (Bloomberg, 6/6/19). BuzzFeed workers also staged a walkout in their organizing efforts (The Hill, 6/17/19).
There is plenty of talk among Tanden’s defenders that if she is rejected, it will be because of partisan pettiness (bolstered by misogyny). Her supporters argue that her experience in executive leadership make her qualified for the job, and that because she is undoubtedly close to the Democratic Party establishment, Biden could count on her for loyalty.
But many workers or labor organizers in liberal nonprofit settings have learned the hard way that lofty ideas of equality and justice in the workplace don’t extend to the home office. For progressive media workers, who have long watched the WGAE’s efforts to unionize the digital media sector with hope, Tanden embodies that dynamic. So while it might be Republican hypocrisy that ultimately sinks Tanden, supporters of workers rights may breathe a sigh of relief to see her removed from the budget-making process.