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Working In These Times

Thursday, Sep 13, 2012, 7:49 pm

Nicholas Kristof Didn’t Join Colleagues To Back NYT Overseas Employees in Union Fight

BY Mike Elk

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof   (World Economic Forum / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Today, two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof penned an op-ed titled “Students Over Unions” bashing the Chicago Teachers Union's current strike. Kristof writes,

I’d be sympathetic if the union focused solely on higher compensation. Teachers need to be much better paid to attract the best college graduates to the nation’s worst schools. But, instead, the Chicago union seems to be using its political capital primarily to protect weak performers.

Ironically, when Kristof started off at the Times in the 1980s, he was protected by similar job-security provisions as a member of the Newspaper Guild of New York. When Kristof become a columnist for the paper, he ceased being a union member. Now that Kristof is a star, union members say that he has given them the cold shoulder when they have asked for help in restoring pensions to the foreign overseas employees who have very likely helped Kristof in his reporting.

In January, the New York Times froze the pensions of its non-U.S.-citizen overseas employees, many of whom work in dangerous hotspots as translators and fixers. The move greatly upset New York Times reporters, especially with two recent deaths of foreign employees: the 2009 killing of reporter Sultan Munadi (a former Times interpreter) in Afghanistan while he was trying to protect a Times reporter, and of Times translator Khalid W. Hassan outside of Baghdad in 2007.

More than 600 New York Times employees condemned the pension freeze in an open letter to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr, last December. “Our foreign citizen employees in overseas bureaus have just had their pensions frozen with only a week’s warning. Some of these people have risked their lives so that we can do our jobs,” read the letter. “A couple have even lost them. Many have spent their entire careers at the Times—indeed, some have letters from your father explaining the pension system—and deserve better treatment.”

One union member says he wrote to Kristof--who has won two Pulitzers for his overseas reporting and surely worked with New York Times' foreign employees--and asked him to sign the letter. He says Kristof ignored him.

“I was one of the several authors of the letter. At the time, I wrote individually to all the columnists [except Krugman] asking them to consider signing it. Because some had been foreign correspondents and had depended on those people who were being unilaterally screwed out of their pensions and who had no union protection, I hoped they would step forward,” says New York Times science reporter Donald McNeil. “But not one signed. Not one even answered my note. Since then, I’ve hoped that at least one or two would weigh in on our struggle here. But nothing. Silence.”

Nicholas Kristof did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Currently, the New York Times is locked in an ugly contract struggle with the union that Kristof once belonged to, the Newspaper Guild of New York. The reporters at the New York Times have worked without a contract for nearly a year and a half, since their previous contract expired on March 31, 2011. (Full disclosure: I am an associate member of the Newspaper Guild (TNG-CWA).)

As the contract battle heats up at the New York Times, union leaders such as O’Meara are hoping more star reporters and columnists speak up. He fears that the New York Times is going to seek an impasse in bargaining with the National Labor Relations Board in order to unilaterally impose a concessionary contract on unionized reporters.

The New York Times is also trying to eliminate pensions for its U.S. employees, according to Newspaper Guild of New York President Bill O’Meara. Another big sticking point in contract negotiations is that the New York Times wants to further increase employee healthcare costs, which are already high. “According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the typical worker at a large company pays 24 percent of his or her total health premiums, with the company paying 76 percent. But we at the Times pay 46 percent of our total health premiums—nearly double the nationwide employee average—while the Times pays just 54 percent,” wrote veteran Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse in an email to union members that was leaked to the press in April.

“People think they are stars and don’t need a union. Unfortunately, what happens is there is a change in management and their star dims a bit, and they do need a union,” says Bill O'Meara. “It’s a real shame."

As someone who attempted to organize reporters myself as part of the Newspaper Guild, I can tell you that solidarity can be difficult to find in reporters whose job security comes from their byline and not their union clout. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for star reporters or columnists to stay out of union struggles, feeling that their jobs are protected by the power of their brands. Reporters as popular as Kristof, who has over 1 million Twitter followers, are the least likely to suffer a pay cut or a layoff, as the New York Times could ill afford to lose them.

But other Times reporters may face a tougher situation.

“I think it is going to come to a head in the next month,” says O’Meara. “The struggle is going to get very difficult. Various things are going to happen. Nobody is ruling out a strike. Obviously we want to avoid it and get a contract.”

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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