Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post, and Unions: It Has Been and Still Is a Rocky Road

From a story by Hamilton Nolan in the Columbia Journalism Review about the Washington Post headlined “Jeff Bezos could solve pay equality tomorrow. He makes empty gestures instead.”:

We are living in a time of unprecedented corporate insincerity. It rises in tandem with the sincerity of the protesters in the street.

The name of the game for big companies and chief executives, in times like these, is to give the appearance of being on the side of the public while avoiding doing anything of substance that might negatively affect the bottom line. . . .

Which brings us to Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post.

At the time of this writing, Bezos’ net worth is about $153 billion. It can fluctuate by billions of dollars per day with the movements of Amazon’s stock price. The fact that the loss or gain of several billion dollars in a day is completely immaterial to Bezos’ life is a very good illustration of the concept of diminishing marginal utility, which essentially means that the more money you have, the less each extra dollar means to you. . . .

To bring this conversation down to earth, consider the small matter of all of the Post employees who work for Bezos. They are, in a very real way, both contributors to his vast net worth, and people to whom he is directly responsible as an employer. What can Bezos do within his own company–for the people most directly under his control, who do the work that adds up to his billions–to prove that he actually cares about the ongoing national demand for justice and equity?

If your answer was “donate $10 million to good causes” you probably work for Amazon PR. A much more meaningful action, and one completely in his power, would be to ensure pay equity within his own company.

Luckily, the Washington Post Guild went to the trouble of conducting a full study on pay equity last year. They found that, in 2019 (six years into Bezos’ ownership of the paper), women in the newsroom were paid less than men; employees of color were paid less than white men, “even when controlling for age and job description”; and men earned a higher portion of merit raises than women “despite accounting for a smaller proportion of the newsroom.”. . .

What would it take to achieve full pay equity at the Post? Surprisingly little. To raise the pay of all the journalists of color up to the average pay of white journalists would cost just under $2 million per year. To raise the pay of all of the women in the newsroom up to the average pay of men would cost about $9 million per year. . . .

In other words, for less than the obligatory charity donation and accompanying press release, Jeff Bezos could have achieved complete pay equity at the Post. Doing so, of course, would have required working productively together with the union, something that Bezos has never shown any interest in doing. But it would have been a quick and easy way to achieve equity in practice, rather than gesturing vaguely at an affinity for equity, as long as it doesn’t cost too much. . . .
For more on the Washington Post and unions, see this from an earlier About Editing and Writing post headlined “Journalism and Unions: It’s Been a Rocky Road”:

New York Times on October 11, 1975
WASHINGTON, Oct. 11—In the second week of the strike by pressmen at The Washington Post, the nation’s seventh largest newspaper, the editorially liberal, pro‐labor daily has apparently begun to reveal a carefully prepared and determined strategy to lessen its unions’ power to disrupt publication by using their principal weapon—the withholding of labor. On Wednesday, the mailers’ and photoengravers’ unions joined the strike.

The result, many here now feel, may be a long newspaper labor war. Negotiations were suspended Thursday with a report of “no progress,” and no date set to resume them.

Post executives said earlier they had been shocked and outraged by the disabling of the newspaper’s presses as the pressmen’s strike began Oct. 1, but have repeatedly denied charges of union oficials that “Post management is out to destroy the unions.”

Although it is now known that The Post had extensively prepared itself to he able to continue publication with no union employes, if necessary—only members of the Newspaper Guild, the editorial and clerical union, have stayed and Post officials say they were unprepared for the loss of their pressroom facilities.

A day after the strike began, however, the Post resumed limited publication with the help of the nonunion press rooms of six outlying newspapers.

New York Times on December 13, 1975
WASHINGTON, Dec. 13—The 10‐week strike by pressmen at The Washington Post neared a climax today as a result of the newspaper’s announced “hard decision” to replace its 200 pressmen with nonunion workers beginning tomorrow.

As the pressmen’s union faced the prospect of being ousted at another major metropolitan newspaper—as it has already at other papers in Miami, Dallas, Kansas City, Mo., Los Angeles and New Haven, among others—more than 1,000 Washington‐area unionists rallied today outside The Post’s heavily guarded building in a protest called by the Greater Washington Central Labor Council.

The peaceful demonstration included renewed appeals from union leaders for a subscriber and advertiser boycott of The Post, a denunciation of union members—chiefly in the Newspaper Guild — who have continued working at no struck paper, and the burning in effigy of Katharine Graham, The Post publisher.
Here’s a 2015 Washington Post story, “Why Internet journalists don’t organize” by Lydia DePillis. The deck:

The booming world of web media is almost entirely non-union, for reasons that are as much generational as structural.
A link to a 2012 Vanity Fair story, The Long Goodbye, by Scott Sherman, about the New York City newspaper strike that changed the relationship of newspapers and unions. The deck:

Fifty years ago this month, striking printers shut down seven New York City newspapers. The strike would last for 114 days and helped to kill four of those newspapers. “This was an absolutely unnecessary strike,” recalls Tom Wolfe, who worked for the doomed Herald Tribune. Deep down it was about technological disruption—a foreshadowing of dislocations that roil the newspaper industry in our own time. As a newspaper town, New York was never the same again.


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