03 May 2022
With roughly 600 members, the Times Tech Guild is the country’s largest union with collective bargaining rights in or around tech. With all the flash and hype around tech, labor, and unions, software engineer Goran Svorcan shares a refreshingly boring account of the hard work that makes the excitement possible. He walks and talks through the journey from the early decision to build worker power with a union to the successful election and explains how the organizing effort sustains itself in the ebbs and flows of campaigning, card signing, filing, voting, and bargaining.
The Worker’s Perspective
Most people think of The New York Times as a print newspaper, not a tech company. But at this point most companies have substantial tech departments, and The Times is no exception. By sharing our story and the example of a large unit like ours achieving success, we hope to inspire folks in other industries who also feel compelled to unionize themselves.
Organizing Can Happen Anywhere
None of us woke up one day thinking, “Let’s unionize.” We drew inspiration from existing examples of collective action already happening in our own workplace. We saw people coming together and working towards and achieving a common goal, something that can happen in any workplace, unionized or not. We realized it would be great to have an existing system to facilitate more of that energy consistently, not just on an issue-by-issue basis. That’s the idea — a union is a legally protected structure for collective action that you can call on when you want to make change in your workplace.
Some of us decided to seek out this more formalized structure and approached The NewsGuild, a logical partner based on their many recent successful organzing campaigns including The Times’s own WireCutter, not to mention The Times newsroom which has been unionized for around 80 years. We started small, with lots of support by the great full-time organizers at The NewsGuild to help us expand our effort. None of us had much union organizing experience previously so we had to learn on the job. But because we focused on listening to our coworkers about how they’d like to change their workplace, rather than dictating an issue platform to them, we stayed grounded and committed to our common cause. For us, it wasn’t about the headlines, but making The Times the best place to work.
While there has been a great resurgence of organizing recently, starting a union from scratch is still a daunting task. There are, however, many existing unions out there ready and willing to help that you can reach out to. The key is to keep your efforts member-led, focusing on your fellow workers and not getting distracted by broader union politics.
Building Worker Power
Once we decided to organize, we took steps to hear directly from people across the company. We did individual 1:1 outreach and had conversations with our fellow workers about what issues most resonated with them, and what they wanted the power to change. These conversations evolved over time, and went beyond the more general points used in our initial meetings. Building trust with individual coworkers is a slow and steady process, bringing one person at a time over into the union effort. Most people we talked to hadn’t been part of a union before, so this took some work. Our organizing committee was very passionate, but we had to keep ourselves grounded and adjust if we ever got out of step with our members. It’s important that each union effort draws power from the bottom up, not the top down.
Rather than us as organizers being arbiters of what issues to fight for, we aim to decide those matters democratically within the union. As an example, pay equity was a major point of concern. The tech industry is somewhat notorious for the large variations in pay among even folks who share the same title. It is not always nefarious, but without something like a union there usually isn’t a strong, accountable way of enforcing equal pay for equal work. Even without a legally recognized union however, encouraging salary-sharing was a way of getting people talking and building worker power, breaking the taboo of talking about salaries and even empowering them to demand fair pay.
Another major issue for our coworkers was just cause. As at-will employees, we can be fired at any time for any reason without a guaranteed opportunity to defend ourselves. A union can protect against this by requiring a fair and just process for any disciplinary action, ensuring that management must provide reasonable cause for their actions. In addition to protecting workers in need, unions can establish clear and fair career ladders, giving workers the power to demand to be given a title commensurate with their work.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are also a central issue in our organizing, intersecting with all of the issues already covered. Pay equity, job protections, career growth: All of these factors add up to create a better work environment for marginalized groups in addition to the more directly DEI-specific initiatives our members are committed to and passionate about. By exercising their legal right to request information from an employer, union workers could conduct their own pay equity studies, seeing for themselves whether there are pay inequities that fall along marginalized group lines, and then use that data to fight and win change in their workplace.
Robber baron CEOs may exist, but leadership at The Times does care about their workers. Unfortunately, due to the conditioning of the modern workplace, many workers don’t feel comfortable speaking up about the change they’d like to see, and without a bottom-up approach these issues can be easily missed by management. A union, however, empowers each worker to speak up, knowing they have the support of their coworkers, and removing the fear, intentional or not, that’s all too common. It gives you a seat at the table to have a say in your workplace.
A Sometimes Rocky Road
When we started this process, many people were new to formal union campaigns, so help from The NewsGuild was really valuable in learning the basics of organizing: having conversations with your colleagues, listening rather than talking, hearing people’s concerns, and building trust to build solidarity.
These conversations can be difficult, especially with your colleagues, with whom we’re taught to be conflict-averse. You’re making concrete asks of people - “Will you sign this union card?”, “Will you come to a meeting?” - about something they might have never thought about before. So we needed to get comfortable being empathetic but direct. We found that dropping any specific script was more effective, and that it was important to ask open-ended questions, allowing for silence rather than filling the space with words in order to give people the space to express themselves. Starting with bread-and-butter issues like pay and benefits was also helpful as an introduction to the more concrete elements of what a union can fight for.
We want to make sure we’re not dismissing people’s concerns, either. Even when someone is vehemently saying, “I think unions are bad” or “My only experience with unions is from the outside looking in”, we need to be receptive, truly hear them, and to incorporate what we’re hearing. Appealing to just our supporters doesn’t build solidarity, and making space for all opinions, while not always easy, is very important. After all, the union is all of us and the organizing process should reflect that.
We’re not here to be a second layer of management or management 2.0; we’re here to be something different. Building solidarity takes different forms and we tried an “all of the above” approach. We created a union Slack for our members to have a non-company controlled space to talk in. We started a union book club and hosted social events, both online and off. We all changed our avatars on company Slack to show the company, and most importantly each other, that we stand together. All these added up to us seeing each other as one big unit working together instead of individuals going it alone.
We moved from organizing people one-on-one to asking people to sign cards and requesting voluntary recognition from the company. After they turned us down, we continued organizing. With a petition signed by a supermajority of our members, we asked for an online AAA election, which management disappointingly also denied. We filed with the NLRB shortly thereafter and continued our organizing efforts, making sure our members stayed engaged and informed. Management then fought us on our unit definition: we thought our unit should consist of everyone who works together cross-functionally, but they insisted on separate units for each job type. Due to their unwillingness to negotiate this point, we had to go to a hearing in front of the board to determine our unit’s scope, and thankfully the board agreed with what we already knew was true: that people who work together deserve to bargain together.
Right before the election, we asked our members to sign a pledge saying why they’re excited to vote yes in the election so we could all remind each other of what we’re excited to do together. We then made sure everyone knew exactly how the ballots worked, how they could confirm whether the board got theirs, and how they could request new ones if they needed them. We even made a lovely little TikTok about how to fill in and mail out a ballot.
Organizing Never Ends
When you’re bargaining a contract, management can’t speak to the entire unit at once; however, through continued organizing and mass participation, we can make sure that every member feels heard and has a chance to be involved in the process in whatever way makes sense for them. Bargaining is not just what you say at the table, but how you reconcile the competing needs, opinions, and desires of the membership, as well as how to ensure that regardless of how small a group is they feel empowered by the larger whole.
The power a union wields at the bargaining table is a direct result of that organizing and solidarity. It is not through clever language or legal tactics that a strong contract is won, but through collective action. Be it changing a Slack avatar, wearing a button to the (now virtual) office, or ultimately striking, behaving collectively is what moves negotiations forward and builds the trust needed to win.
Ultimately, contracts aside, all a union is is a democratic structure for making change in your workplace. Nothing about it is set in stone, and it’s all shaped by the workers within it, even in tech. The folks at Kickstarter have a more traditional wall-to-wall bargaining unit using their power to build binding change for their entire workplace, while those at the Alphabet Workers Union operate as a solidarity union, eschewing a contract for more flexibility both in membership and action. There is no perfect system, but if you focus on building a solid foundation of trust and camaraderie amongst your coworkers, you’ll win and you’ll win big.
I’d like to thank the fine people at TWC for helping me share our story with everyone. A lifelong thank you to all the organizers at The NewsGuild and my colleagues at The Times who made this all happen. It may sound boring, but I’m excited to build tech solidarity and win a great contract for our members.