Yesterday, when the good news of New York magazine unionizing broke, Jonathan Chait outed himself as a huge piece of shit on Twitter. Later that day, Chait posted a longer explanation on his hesitance about a union at New York on Facebook. He said he supports “most” unions, but at non-profit institutions (which he seems to think includes New York, despite it being a for-profit institution, because he is “pretty sure New York does not make money”), so the “rationale” of ensuring “a fair share of profit for labor” doesn’t apply, so unions aren’t necessary.
He claims there are “real risks to the entire institution that a union drive would bring,” especially at an unprofitable one, and thinks those risks outweigh the benefits. This makes no damn sense—if your institution is unprofitable, up for sale, or on such shaky ground that workers demanding fair compensation might blow the whole thing up, you definitely want the protection of a union. If you’re at risk of layoffs, believe me—you want a union.
Chait is also just plain wrong about the idea that unions have anything to do with the profitability or stability of your company. He falls prey to the bizarre argument that others have put forward in the wake of media companies going under that a union is inherently bad for a company’s profitability; that if you organize at a time when your company isn’t doing well, you’re liable to tip it over into bankruptcy. This makes a lot of assumptions—for example, that executives aren’t being massively overpaid and the money for staffers could come from there—but it’s also just part of the script bosses use to discourage you from organizing: If you unionize, we’ll go out of business. You don’t want that, do you? Isn’t a low-paying job better than no job at all, they say with a boot firmly on your neck?
Unions are not just about pay raises, though that’s one great thing they can get you, and one thing the New York union seeks to achieve. You want a union in the good times and the bad times; you want a union if your company is raking in cash, and you want one if it’s on its last legs. If your company is profitable, a union can help you push for your bosses to share those profits; if your company is about to collapse, a union can offer protection as it goes down.
Most idiotic of all, however, is this passage from Chait:
I think there are ways to push for higher salaries for lower-earning workers at New York, and I support this even at the cost of more established staffers like myself. I don’t believe the union would accomplish this better than a simple demand focused on this priority would.
This is a pair of sentences that could only have been written by someone who is closer, both personally and very likely in terms of salary, with management than the vast majority of his colleagues. Jonathan Chait is, for whatever reason, held in high esteem by other members of the media and by New York. Chait is a Name; he has written books, he gets invited to panels. He goes on telly sometimes. Although I don’t personally think his work is so good that he’s worth five of those underpaid lower-ranking staffers—I don’t know his salary, but he hints that it’s high when he says he would support raising staffers’ pay “even at the cost of more established staffers like myself”—I think that’s how New York sees him.
Because of this stature, it’s probably always been quite easy for Chait to make a “simple demand” about pay. He can talk to the New York owners any old time he’s pissed about something; he’s high-up, established, and personally close to them. I’m sure he’s had great luck in the past making a simple demand for a raise. That is almost certainly not true for the rest of the staff.
What Chait doesn’t understand, here, is power. He doesn’t understand that there is no reason for management to grant raises to staffers who currently have very little power. It’s much easier for them to tell individual staffers, after they each work up the courage to ask for a raise, that sorry, we just don’t have the money. And the staff can’t do anything about that. A union changes that. A union gives staffers collective power and real leverage in those discussions through the wonderful magic of solidarity (and the legal protections afforded to union activities).
Unions are, at the core, a simple proposition: Workers have common interests, and those interests, whatever they are, are better protected as a group than alone. Union activity is a legally protected way of talking to your coworkers about what you need from your job and trying to get those things from management. That often means higher pay, though it doesn’t always; sometimes it means pushing your bosses to hire a more diverse staff, or better benefits, or more sick time, or editorial control. All a union does is allow workers to exercise a little bit of power, because alone, workers have very little power. If your boss treats you like shit and you withhold your labor in protest, they can fire you for not doing your job. This is especially true if you’re a younger, entry-level employee; in media, where jobs are scarce and 23-year-olds willing to blog for peanuts are 10 a penny, it’s not going to go over well if you announce your intention to go on solo strike.
Chait should know this, and that’s the distinction I want to draw. If you work for a media company, or any company, and you have questions about unionization, you aren’t immediately and necessarily a scab. There is so much misinformation in our culture, especially in the workplace, that pushes people to assume all sorts of wrong things about unions. At a previous job where the staff unionized shortly after I started working there, people had myriad questions that I think came from a genuine misunderstanding of how unions worked (many of which came from staffers who, like Chait, had cushier jobs than the rest of us and all the privileges that afforded them).
Some of those higher-level staffers thought a union would mean their salaries would be reduced; others thought that personal development programs might go away, or that special accommodations for people with chronic illnesses might end if the contract specified a number of sick days. (These are not things that happen in a union.) Mostly, they didn’t understand that a union is an expression of what the entire unit agrees upon. They genuinely didn’t understand that the unit had no incentive to do something like sign a contract that says “You can’t ask your boss for extra sick days if you have a chronic illness.” They thought that was just what happened in a union.
Examples of questions that are not in good faith and that do constitute being a shithead to your coworkers are things like: “Aren’t my coworkers just lazy?” “Have you tried asking for a raise?” “I’ve always had a good experience with management; why do we need a union?”
It’s natural and understandable to be cautious about things you’ve long been told will threaten your job. The people who might organize a union at your workplace are going to be happy and eager to answer your questions and explain why you’ve got more to fear from not having a union than having one. It’s not natural or understandable, however, for a middle-aged man who writes about public policy for a living to pretend that “just ask your boss for a raise” is the easiest solution to a whole host of complex, multi-faceted problems. It is not understandable for someone in as deeply privileged a situation as Jonathan fucking Chait to think a “simple demand” would be met by management if there’s nothing to back it up.
Some people just don’t get this stuff; some people, like elephants, are just jerks.