The Washington Post Tried to Penalize a Writer for Criticizing Jeff Bezos. He Fought Back—And Won.

David Dayen September 18, 2018 founder and CEO Jeff Bezos pictured on June 18, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Fredrick Kun­kle was upset. A staff writer for the Wash­ing­ton Posts Metro desk, he noticed Ama­zon founder Jeff Bezos, the own­er of his news­pa­per, mus­ing on Twit­ter about what to do with his mon­ey, which hap­pens to be more than any human being has ever accu­mu­lat­ed in mod­ern his­to­ry. Kun­kle had an idea for the funds: revers­ing the hits Bezos had forced upon Post work­ers in suc­ces­sive con­tract negotiations.

The co-chair of the Wash­ing­ton-Bal­ti­more News Guild’s col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing unit at the paper, Kun­kle wit­nessed in 2014 Bezos’ man­age­ment team freeze defined-ben­e­fit pen­sions for non-union employ­ees, replac­ing them with a lump sum or annu­ity for old­er work­ers, and a 401(k) plan for new­er ones. Man­age­ment also tried to elim­i­nate health insur­ance from part-time employ­ees, which the union man­aged to sal­vage by giv­ing back wages. When the next con­tract came up in 2017, man­age­ment sought to slash sev­er­ance in half, while also con­di­tion­ing the pay­ments on a legal waiv­er from any law­suit against the Post, a com­pa­ny that had recent­ly set­tled a case of alleged racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

In oth­er words, while Bezos had made sig­nif­i­cant invest­ments to revive the Post, he was strip­ping ben­e­fits from its work­ers and treat­ing them as eas­i­ly expend­able, match­ing his sto­ried mis­treat­ment of work­ers at Amazon.

Kun­kle had nev­er shied away from media atten­tion and speak­ing out against Bezos’ hard­line tac­tics. So he used his tal­ents to pen an op-ed, con­trast­ing Bezos’ attempts to focus on phil­an­thropy with the expe­ri­ence of those work­ing beneath him.

It should go with­out say­ing that char­i­ta­ble giv­ing for med­ical research and oth­er wor­thy caus­es is impor­tant and nec­es­sary,” Kun­kle wrote. But as with oth­er mul­ti-bil­lion­aires, Bezos should remem­ber that his vast wealth came in part from labor, and he should do more to share that wealth with work­ers. Instead, Bezos has shown that he views his employ­ees as parts in a high-tech machine, that income inequal­i­ty is some­one else’s prob­lem, and that mod­ern cor­po­ra­tions owe lit­tle more to their employ­ees than a paycheck.”

Kun­kle first offered the arti­cle to the Post, but they declined; even­tu­al­ly Kun­kle pub­lished it for free in the Huff­in­g­ton Post in Sep­tem­ber 2017. But short­ly after­wards, Kun­kle was giv­en a writ­ten warn­ing by the paper for free­lanc­ing for a com­pet­ing pub­li­ca­tion with­out permission.”

This dis­ci­plin­ing was ille­gal, accord­ing to a memo from the Office of Gen­er­al Coun­sel of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) released last Fri­day. While the memo stat­ed that it was legal for the Post to restrict its staff writ­ers from pub­lish­ing in oth­er out­lets, because Kun­kle wasn’t paid for the Huff­Post op-ed, he was engag­ing in pro­tect­ed labor activ­i­ty by high­light­ing Bezos’ actions against Post work­ers.

Since the reporter was not paid for the arti­cle and did not vio­late the no-free­lanc­ing rule, con­duct was no dif­fer­ent from that of any employ­ee speak­ing out about work­ing con­di­tions in a let­ter to the edi­tor of a news­pa­per or oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the pub­lic,” wrote Jayme Sophir, head of the NLR­B’s Divi­sion of Advice, in the memo. 

The fact that Kun­kle request­ed that the Post run the op-ed first, as per the newspaper’s stan­dards, also played into the deci­sion. Sophir con­clud­ed that noth­ing in the op-ed was untrue or dis­parag­ing, and it could not be kept from the pub­lic or sub­ject the author to a reprimand.

While the memo didn’t explic­it­ly iden­ti­fy Kun­kle, it did note the title of the op-ed in ques­tion: Jeff Bezos Wants To Give More Mon­ey To Char­i­ty. He Should Pay His Work­ers First.” That was Kunkle’s arti­cle. The memo was writ­ten in July; its exis­tence was only revealed last week.

This is an impor­tant vic­to­ry for free speech rights at work, beyond the very unique cir­cum­stances of Kunkle’s sit­u­a­tion. Every­one should have the abil­i­ty to crit­i­cize their employ­er, not just the co-chair of a union bar­gain­ing unit. Far too many work­ers are intim­i­dat­ed against doing so, and few have access to op-ed pages to broad­cast their mes­sage. The clerk at the local super­mar­ket or the tele­phone line­man fix­ing a util­i­ty pole can express their opin­ions about their jobs, and we all ben­e­fit from their per­spec­tive and how it might apply to where we work.

But Kun­kle in some ways had a greater task, because his crit­i­cism was levied at Jeff Bezos, some­one with more mon­ey and as much pow­er as any­one in Amer­i­ca. Bezos is using char­i­ty as a shield, to over­shad­ow and deflect crit­i­cism of his work­place prac­tices. His recent estab­lish­ment of a $2 bil­lion char­i­ty called the Day One Fund, focused on low-income preschools and fight­ing home­less­ness, gen­er­at­ed pos­i­tive head­lines, while the expe­ri­ence of Ama­zon deliv­ery dri­vers, denied over­time and forced to uri­nate into bot­tles rather than take breaks, remains more obscure. 

The Posts jour­nal­ists may be union­ized, unlike Ama­zon work­ers. But Bezos is sys­tem­i­cal­ly chip­ping away at their ben­e­fits with each suc­ces­sive con­tract, in what appears to be an ide­o­log­i­cal cru­sade against work­ers shar­ing in the fruits of a suc­cess­ful busi­ness. Key to this tac­tic is the cone of silence Bezos wants to build around his work­places, so nobody can speak out. The NLRB, at least in Kunkle’s case, put a stop to that.

Kun­kle told In These Times that he was delight­ed to read the memo and espe­cial­ly hap­py that the NLRB’s gen­er­al coun­sel pub­lished it as guid­ance for oth­ers,” affirm­ing that all employ­ees have the right to speak out pub­licly about work­ing con­di­tions. He has­n’t got­ten an apol­o­gy from the Post, but said that was beside the point. What I hope for more is a sign that Jeff Bezos might wake up to the idea one of these days that he owes more to soci­ety and his employ­ees than the min­i­mum he can get away with.”

Dis­clo­sure: In These Times work­ers are union­ized with The Wash­ing­ton-Bal­ti­more News­pa­per Guild, CWA Local 32035.

David Dayen is an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. His book Chain of Title: How Three Ordi­nary Amer­i­cans Uncov­ered Wall Street’s Great Fore­clo­sure Fraud won the 2015 Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Ange­les, where pri­or to writ­ing about pol­i­tics he had a 19-year career as a tele­vi­sion pro­duc­er and editor.
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