The narrative casting Jeff Bezos as a transformative media baron reached new heights in 2017. His Washington Post consistently set the political agenda while claiming two straight years of profitability. Bezos himself glowed on the red carpet as an improbable journalism hero when Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a fictionalized account of the newspaper’s publication of The Pentagon Papers, opened in December.
Bezos is worth $111 billion. He is the richest man in the world. But over the past eight months, his prized media outlet has repeatedly stymied requests for better pay and benefits from the employees who’ve driven its renaissance. The paper’s union, the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild, remains locked in a tense contract dispute, union reps told Splinter, with management ceding little ground in negotiations over annual raises, improved retirement plans, and other workplace protections. Hanging over the talks is the question of how to pressure an owner whose purchase of the newspaper is widely credited for pulling it back from the brink.
“Many of the employees see Jeff Bezos as a savior to the company,” David DeJesus, a longtime advertising staffer who co-chairs the Post’s bargaining unit of about 880 editorial and business-side employees, told Splinter. “People are a little bit hesitant to be openly critical of him because of it.”
Management used that leverage to some effect in the last union contract, struck in 2015, which slashed retirement benefits but maintained across-the-board annual salary increases. But union memos to members shared with Splinter suggest the company is taking a harder line this time around, a more aggressive stance they attribute to Bezos’ ownership (the Amazon founder purchased the paper in 2013). His star power makes for an effective political cudgel as management, negotiating on his behalf, seeks more leeway to fire staffers at will and cut severance pay in a new two-year deal with the guild.
Post brass has suggested replacing annual pay raises for all employees under the contract with an individualized merit-based system, a move the union argues will amount to a pay freeze for many. Management has also floated giving staffers a lump sum payment of several hundred dollars in the first year of the contract followed by weekly wage increases of a mere $8 or $10 in its second year. One lump sum discussed was $600; coupled with a weekly increase of $10, that would amount to an additional $1,120 over two years, minus taxes.
Management invoked the messianic narrative around Bezos while defending those proposals in the most recent negotiating session last week, Post staff writer Fredrick Kunkle, who represents editorial employees in the bargaining unit, told Splinter. The guild went on to publicize the remarks on Twitter:
“‘You should be happy you have a job’ is what we’re hearing,” Kunkle added. “We’re almost perplexed at how intransigent the company has been.”
Managing Editor Tracy Grant did not respond to Splinter’s request for comment. Post spokesperson Shani George said that “we do not have anything to share at this time.” Representatives for Bezos have yet to respond to a request for comment.
The continued reluctance to give Post workers a better deal comes after Publisher Fred Ryan boasted in an end-of-year memo to staff about a record number of subscribers, an advertising team that “has exceeded its targets and all previous records,” and journalism that “has never been better.”
If Bezos’ goal is for the Post to surpass The New York Times—its main competitor for talent, among other things—the labor dispute highlights an area in which it’s falling behind. In December, the Times union approved a new contract that included a signing bonus for employees and guaranteed annual raises through 2020. For Bezos to match such offerings for his beloved Post employees would require a small fraction of a percentage point of his net worth, which has grown by a cool $30 billion since contract negotiations began in May.
Bezos’ anti-union bona fides are well established. Less clear is how long Post staffers will show him deference for reinvesting in the company. DeJesus, who represents advertising staffers in contract talks, told Splinter that the union’s dues-paying membership is growing. Forty-one percent of members under the Post contract are now paying into the union—an 11-point increase since March. (Not all employees have to pay dues thanks to a 1975 union-busting effort by none other than journalism hero of the moment, Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep in The Post.)
“I don’t want to dog Mr. Bezos,” DeJesus said. “I’m just saying that there’s something out of line when a company is owned by the wealthiest man in the world and we’re fighting for fair wages and a better 401k match.”