⚡ Why I'm Unionizing
Why and how tech workers can form a union today
What does labor justice look like in practice, and how do you get involved?
To find out, we talked to Angie Kim, an engineer on The New York Times's Machine Learning Platform team and a member of the organizing committee for The Times Tech Guild (check out their site for background on the movement). She's also a recent graduate of Brown University and an avid crocheter.
🛠️ Why I'm Unionizing ft. Angie Kim
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved in organizing for The Times Tech Guild, especially so soon after you joined the team?
The first month I joined The New York Times was super chaotic. We were rushing to hit a deadline, so we were spending all our time on Google Meets and working late hours. This resulted in the crumbling of team morale and goodwill, and eventually caused a total reorg.
As I was venting to a mentor and friend at The Times, she told me about a group of tech workers who are "working on improving our workplace." I immediately recognized this as a signal of workplace organizing: back in May, I had attended a panel hosted by the NYC-DSA Tech Action Working Group on tech unions, and I realized that's exactly what my mentor was talking about.
What issues are motivating folks to unionize at The Times?
Honestly, the reasons are things probably common to all workplaces — for example, pay equity is a big one. The News Guild (which represents the newsroom side of The Times) conducted studies that found statistically significant disparities in compensation based on race and gender in the newsroom. At the Tech Guild, we know of disparities anecdotally, but a union would give us more power to address it and force management to take it seriously.
We're also asking for benefits, including parental leave, care for miscarriages, or other fertility concerns; fair promotion processes that are less dictated by your relationship with your manager or your connections within the company; making remote work a long-term possibility to accommodate folks with disabilities; and more robust (and binding) diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies.
On a more tactical level, how did you all do this? What does a unionization process look like?
We decided that the Tech Guild would encompass everyone who builds, supports, and maintains the technical systems at the Times. In strategic terms, we were trying to carve out a part of the company that makes sense together as a unit, and this is what we came up with. In total, we have around 700 people eligible for the union: the NLRA dictates that no one with hiring or firing power can be in a union, so it's basically all the ICs (to put it in tech-speak).
We have an organizing committee, which makes up around 10% of our bargaining unit (people who are eligible for the union). As an organizing committee member, our job is to reach out to eligible people to hear their workplace concerns, and figure out whether those are things that a union might help with. So that list of motivating issues I provided was the product of hundreds of one-on-one conversations we were all having across the company — not something we arbitrarily came up with.
The goal of these conversations with coworkers, other than soliciting feedback, is to see who might be interested in signing a union card, which acts as an informal vote 'Yes' on the union. Once we pass the threshold of 50%-plus-one 'Yes' votes, we have the legal right to form a union.
In media unions, it's common to ask for voluntary recognition from the company, which is what we tried to do. Unfortunately, NYT management refused. As a result, we have to go into an NLRB election, which is a more formal secret ballot which requires 50%-plus-one 'Yes' votes out of all eligible workers. NLRB elections take time — four to six months — and from the management's perspective, that's more time for the company to inform people about the downsides to the union, or to hope that people will get exhausted thinking about the union for such a long time. In my opinion, this is the company's decision to drag this on longer than it needs to — we know we have the support that we need.
Why are you excited about the union? Why makes it so meaningful?
Where do I begin? For one, I always want to be involved politically in some way, and I've realized that doesn't necessarily have to be something external or policy-focused. Building power within your workplace is a totally legitimate way to enact change that affects not only you and your coworkers, but the industry in general.
For example, last week, we participated in an internal panel with folks from several other media unions about how they were able to develop DEI terms to put in their contract. Time Magazine was one of the first — they mandated in legally binding language that 50% of interview candidates have to be people with identities that are underrepresented in the newsroom. They shared that strategy with us and the other media unions, so we're all now trying to replicate that language in contracts at our own companies.
Something that I sometimes felt insecure about was that as a tech worker, the bread and butter issues aren't so important — I'm not fighting for a living wage, for example. But organizing creates the opportunity to create solidarity across workers at different companies within the same industry, or workers in different roles within an industry. This connection is valuable in and of itself — for people to be able to see their position in the workforce not just as fancy technical people, but as part of something bigger. Having a one-on-one conversation with a fellow worker who might not have thought about any of this before can be really powerful. People fundamentally care about each other, and exposing them to inequities that are impacting people they know and respect and interact with every day is a good way to introduce them to broader, systemic issues.
I think the tech industry is like ripe for unionization, and I think unionizing can be a radicalizing force. Exposure to workers' issues is a necessary counter-action to the Silicon Valley libertarian vision of "every man for himself," of only doing things that are immediately and materially good for me. A lot of problems in tech come out of people not thinking about how things affect others, so thinking more deeply about about solidarity can probably do a lot.
More concretely, unionization is a hub for people who might not typically cross paths to find solidarity with one another, and that's important too.
🌳 Clean your timeline with this profile of Max Falkowitz, who writes a lovely newsletter about learning bonsai from a NYC apartment.
🤝 How does a commons differ from the market paradigm we have in the status quo? This table explains. (ICYMI, Reboot's last essay covered commons-based creation.)
🔢 Hacktivists rise up
📣 Called out
💝 closing note
I asked the Reboot community for recommendations on sci-fi films with a human emphasis (think Her, Arrival, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind):
Anh: I highly recommend Gattaca! It’s so underrated and captures the sci-fi/existential questioning thing well.
Ben: Have you seen Contact? It inspired Arrival and it’s so good.
Theresa: I really like this ~indie~ sci-fi short film, World of Tomorrow.
Lucas: Ex Machina is one of my fav sci-fi-y things — I don’t know if it’s soft-sci-fi, but it's just really well done.
Keep up the good fight,
—Jasmine & Reboot team