WASHINGTON ― Like most of the industry titans in the world of big tech, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is no fan of labor unions. Since 1994, he’s fended away every effort by Amazon warehouse workers to unionize.
But when Bezos purchased The Washington Post in 2013, he inherited more than 1,200 workers unionized with the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. That union now claims that Bezos and Washington Post management are trying to gut protections and benefits for workers in the latest contract negotiations.
“Under the Bezos ownership, we fear a fundamental transformation is under way at the Post — one that is occurring in many other workplaces around the country, leading to economic insecurity for working people as though we are disposable or interchangeable elements in a machine,” the union bargaining committee wrote in a memo sent to Post employees on Oct. 6.
According to the memo, management wants to end the paper’s long-standing practice of across-the-board percentage annual pay raises to create an “unprecedented” merit pay system and cut severance benefits. It also refuses to increase the 401(k) match from 1 percent.
The merit system would potentially freeze even inflation adjusted increases in pay for some employees for up to 30 months while others could get up to a 4 percent increase. Management has also proposed to cut severance pay and require any employee who accepts severance to waive their legal rights. When you do away with routine raises only the superstar reporters will wind up getting them. This would leave copy editors, video editors and others who are not the face of the paper on the losing end and increase inequality within the company.
Management has also offered a fallback proposal that will give employees a $600 payment in the first year and then an $8 raise per week in the second year.
This proposal comes with the added threat of an even worse proposal if the union does not agree to the current terms by Nov. 1, the bargaining committee said it its memo.
The bargaining committee has called management’s proposal a “terrible, short-sighted, morale-destroying proposal” that would “deliver real pain to many employees and transform a team enterprise into a collection of salary winners and losers.” The Post declined to comment for this article.
It isn’t as though money is tight for the Post. Profits and revenue are up, and digital subscriptions have tripled. The paper has hired a huge amount of talent, and its reporters have broken numerous major stories about the Trump administration. Even if the paper weren’t profitable it is backed by one of the three wealthiest people in the world. Bezos is worth an almost unfathomable $84 billion.
This is just the latest spat between Bezos and the Post union. During the first contract negotiations back in 2014, Bezos and management cut employee retirement benefits.
In September, Post metro section reporter and union bargaining committee member Freddy Kunkle wrote an op-ed in HuffPost arguing that his paper’s owner was sticking it to his workers. Kunkle argued that Bezos was trying to cover up his attempts to attack the union by touting his charitable giving.
The Post issued a formal warning to Kunkle claiming that he violated the paper’s policy on freelancing. The op-ed, however, was not a freelance piece written as a reporter, but penned from Kunkle’s position as a labor union officer. Union officers are allowed to engage in “concerted activities” in furtherance of the union’s interest. The Washington-Baltimore News Guild filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board in response.
The union has so far rejected management’s proposal and demands management lift its Nov. 1 acceptance deadline.
UPDATE: After this piece published, a Washington Post spokeswoman emailed the HuffPost to ask where the information about stars benefiting from pay systems that solely rely on merit-based judgments for pay raises comes from. The Post could simply look around. Newspapers’ highest paid employees tend to be high-ranking editors and the most well-known writers. At the New York Times, op-ed writers like Tom Friedman are among the employees paid a six-figure salary even though they pen columns — which are sometimes about how they ate too much marijuana or enjoyed seeing Bruce Springsteen in Europe — once or twice a week. These employees are generally the most publicly well-known writers on staff and in a better position to demand higher pay from management. This is a part of the commonly understood superstar effect that occurs when a small number of high performers, whether individuals or corporations, reap all of the profits.
Reporters and economists have noted this effect across industries from sports to music to movies to tech, and even among cities, for decades. Additional studies examining corporate salary systems that provide raises solely based on merit suggest that this practice can increase gender and race-based inequality. The Post already allows pay increases based on merit (or perhaps when they employed Chris Cillizza, based on traffic), which the proposal from management will not change. Instead, their proposal will end routine annual raises for all workers. Efforts to end routine raises are a means of destroying the concept of collective bargaining for a labor union. The whole point of workers joining together in a union is to deliver benefits for all workers, not only the ones who show up on television the most.