On Thursday, about 400 staffers at the Washington Post signed an open letter to their newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, politely suggesting that he’s being a cheapskate in their union’s ongoing contract negotiations. From the letter:
We, the undersigned, have been extremely grateful that you stepped in to purchase the Post at a time when the traditional media model was collapsing, and we have given our all to take advantage of the long runway you promised. In the past year alone, the Post has doubled the number of digital subscriptions and increased its online traffic by more than half; its advertising team has met or exceeded all its targets.
All we are asking for is fairness for each and every employee who contributed to this company’s success: fair wages; fair benefits for retirement, family leave and health care; and a fair amount of job security.
The letter underscores the complexity of the labor dispute at the Post, which was bought by the Amazon co-founder in 2013 and has since seen something of a renaissance. Bezos—a digital oligarch worth an estimated $141 billion—has reaped both outside publicity and internal goodwill for his stewardship of the newspaper. And the narrative casting him as a media luminary took on a particularly idealistic sheen with the Post’s new tagline: Democracy Dies in Darkness.
For more than a year, however, the union that represents about 880 editorial and business-side employees has been locked in tense contract negotiations with the management team that answers to Bezos. And the open letter and corresponding social media campaign on Thursday comes after the union says it has been repeatedly stymied on requests for better retirement benefits, improved protections against layoffs, and a wage increase that’s higher than the $10 a week currently on offer.
“The more disturbing thing is the unwillingness to move on these issues,” Fredrick Kunkle, a metro reporter and co-chair of the Post’s bargaining unit, told Splinter. “We are toward the end of settling this contract, and it’s not going to be a great contract. We know that. We’ve basically spent a year fighting off bad things.”
In January—back when Bezos was worth just $111 billion—representatives for the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild were told at a bargaining meeting that Post staffers should be grateful for the current contract proposal, given all the new journalists hired in recent years. But little has changed since then, Kunkle said, as management has refused to budge on issues like a better 401k match and questions of whether employees maintain the right to sue the company if they receive severance payments. Management has previously suggested replacing annual pay raises for all employees covered by the contract with merit-based increases for top performers, a move the union says will add up to a pay freeze for many employees.
Amazon has long been criticized for its low-wage jobs and poor working conditions, and the company has taken a hardline stance against union drives. The extent to which Bezos has had direct input on the Post’s contract negotiations is unclear. He is the boss, though, and presumably has final say over budget decisions that, to him, might as well be pennies lodged in the deepest crevice of his very large pocketbook.
Post spokesperson Kristine Coratti Kelly declined to comment to Splinter on Thursday. I have also reached out to Bezos for comment through Amazon and will update this post if I hear back.
Employees at many media companies have been organizing their workplaces in recent years in the face of dim financial prospects, budget cutbacks, and general instability. Those unionization efforts have been met with various levels of pushback from management. And staffers at outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The New Yorker have taken their grievances public in an appeal to readers and strategic play for outside support.
Since Post management broke a pressman’s strike in 1975, the newspaper has been an open shop, meaning that employees covered by the union contract aren’t required to pay union dues. But over the past 18 months, Kunkle said, the union has signed up about 100 additional dues-paying members, bringing the total number of active employees to around 400.
The public plea by staffers on Thursday—however conciliatory to Bezos in its language—is evidence of that emboldened stance. Less clear is just how much of this pushback will be required to get a better contract.
“On the one hand, I’m really hopeful given how many people have joined this fight,” Kunkle told Splinter. “On the other hand, I’ve helped negotiate two contracts with our new owner, and the trend line is not pretty as to where they want to take this company and how they want to treat its employees.”