Wirecutter’s union is fed up.
After nearly two years of contract negotiations with management at the product review and recommendation site, and its parent The New York Times Company, Wirecutter’s union of 67 members threatened earlier this week to walk out — virtually — on the site’s biggest time of year: Black Friday.
“We didn’t think we would have to do this because we thought we’d be done before this happened,” said Sarah Kobos, senior photo editor at Wirecutter and interim vice-chair on the bargaining committee at Wirecutter Union, an affiliate of the NewsGuild of New York. “It seems like action is the only way to get them at the table, in a timely manner.”
The union chose to act now, growing concerned that a contract would not be signed by the end of this year. The three unions that represent Wirecutter, The New York Times, and tech workers at the Times are also planning to hold a rally outside of the Times’ headquarters on Nov. 16 at 12 pm E.T., Kobos said. The New York Times Guild is also currently collective bargaining with management over its contract, and the Times Tech Guild has yet to be voluntarily recognized by the company.
According to Kobos, there is only one bargaining session scheduled between Wirecutter Union and management for the rest of the year on Nov. 17. Of the 67 total union members — who are editorial non-management workers — 61 agreed to strike as of Monday evening unless management agrees to a “fair contract.” Wirecutter’s employees work remotely, so it would be a digital walkout where members refuse to work.
“We look forward to continuing to work towards an agreement with the Wirecutter Union in our standard process at the negotiating table,” said Danielle Rhoades Ha, vp, communications at The New York Times Company.
Wirecutter Union also urged its readers not to shop via Wirecutter from Black Friday through Cyber Monday if a deal with management is not reached. The union created a pledge that readers can sign to say they will “not cross the picket line.” Kobos declined to say how many had already signed.
The union is using the shopping holiday as leverage, Kobos said. The time between Black Friday and Cyber Monday represents Wirecutter’s “biggest traffic days,” Kobos said. Last year, the site had more than 1 million readers on each of the five days from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, she said. Black Friday is two and a half weeks out, which is “enough time to work together and do some marathon bargaining and reach an agreement,” Kobos said. “I hope that happens. I’m pretty optimistic that it will. It’s not just a very important time for us, but our busiest and most profitable time of the year for us by far.”
Purchased by The New York Times Company in 2016, Wirecutter makes revenue via affiliate sales and subscriptions. Wirecutter launched a paywall in September. According to the Times’ third-quarter earnings report released on Nov. 3, in its first month with a paywall, Wirecutter had 10,000 subscribers.
Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said the union is “maximizing its leverage by threatening a job action timed to take advantage of the holiday shopping season.” The New York Times Company “is profitable and growing. Its employees have every right to demand a fair share of that success,” he added.
In the third quarter of 2021, The New York Times turned an operating profit of $49.0 million after growing revenue by 19% to reach $509.1 million. The media company’s subscription business was a particular bright spot, having added 455,000 new subscribers, including 135,000 who signed up for its non-news products, including Wirecutter. “This was our best third-quarter performance in both News and total net subscription additions since the launch of the digital pay model more than a decade ago, and, outside of 2020, our best quarter ever for digital subscription additions,” Times president and CEO Meredith Kopit Levien said in the company’s earnings statement.
At the crux of the union’s wants is a salary floor and a guaranteed wage increase. Union members and non-union Wirecutter employees receive merit-based annual increases but do not currently receive a guaranteed wage increase, according to the Times.
- Times management has offered so far to make Wirecutter union members eligible for up to a 2.75% wage increase, including the 0.5% guaranteed wage increase, according to sources at the company familiar with the negotiations.
- Employees would be eligible to receive an additional merit increase based on their performance, as well as a bonus.
- The total increases paid to all employees will be capped at 2.75%.
- Management’s proposal provides increases to the minimum salaries for employees at the bottom of its pay scale, according to the Times, which did not elaborate.
- Wirecutter employees were eligible for a 3.2% wage increase in 2020 and a 3% wage increase in 2021, the company said.
The company’s offered terms are insufficient, according to the Wirecutter union. The group said its members’ median salary is $43,000 less than New York Times Guild members. Wirecutter Union’s last bargaining session with management was on Oct. 21, according to Kobos.
The compensation proposal is “more generous” than what the Wirecutter union has described and “seeks to maintain a similar compensation structure for Wirecutter employees with programs in place for others at The Times Company,” said Rhoades Ha, who did not elaborate on what those programs were.
Nicole Cohen, an associate professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga and co-author of the book “New Media Unions: Organizing Digital Journalists,” was not surprised that Wirecutter’s union was “pushed to this point.”
“Two years is a long time to negotiate a contract,” she said. “What they’re asking for is not unreasonable. These are basic standards that media workers across the sector have been negotiating into their contracts in the past five years — especially for a really large, wealthy media outlet like the New York Times.” She pointed to other digital outlets that have staged walkouts, like Thrillist in 2018 and Vox in 2019. The New Yorker Union averted a strike in June.
“Nobody wants to actually walk out. We want to get to the table and get this done,” Kobos said.
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