Last week, more than 1,300 New York Times employees pointedly refused the company’s call to start working in the office three days a week. There were many reasons for this – the guild contract expired in 2021 and journalists working under the old contract are feeling the severe sting of inflation. But one of the reasons workers resisted returning to the office is because they didn’t want to.
“The ‘expected return’ of the company” tweeted the New York Times News Guild, “is not based on any agreement negotiated with us. … Any RTO policy, in terms of occupational health and safety, should be part of our negotiated contracts. (The Washington Post Guild, of which I am not a member, is also seeking to negotiate back-to-office policies.)
As with any innovation, it seems worth asking whether it’s a good idea. For the union, I mean; as a columnist working largely from home since 2006, i know many good reasons why workers want to be able to skip the commute and work with the dog snoring softly at their feet. But what is good for the workers may well be bad for the union. And to the extent that you support unionization, you might wonder how it will affect workers later.
The heart of the labor movement is solidarity, and solidarity is largely a face-to-face affair. It’s the same reason employers want workers back in the office: face-to-face contact speeds up communication and fosters deeper connections within an organization, alleviating the friction that’s inevitable in any large workplace. .
Unions also face these frictions, as they must not only negotiate with management over higher wages and benefits, but also reach internal agreements on acceptable wage and benefit combinations. This often means conflict between workers with disparate interests: young and old, men and women, healthy and sick. Strong personal relationships and group cohesion make it somewhat easier to manage these tensions.
Without such relationships, it also becomes more difficult to organize new workplaces, as much of the organizing is done through the social networks that form at the coffee machine and picnic. company. Unions also often prefer to keep a low profile until their support base has grown too large for management to easily crush. This can be tricky if the only way to talk to a coworker is via company-managed email, Slack, or Zoom.
So if unions are helping to make remote work more common, they might also be making unions a little less common. And while you think unions can overcome these challenges — maybe people are more willing to attend Zoom organization meetings than offsite meetings — there’s the question of what’s going on at companies. where unions are present and for the workers they represent.
Take young workers, who need to learn how the job is done and, just as importantly, how their boss’ job is done. As the pandemic has made clear, remote learning is no substitute for in-person learning. A union that fights for more remote work might be fighting for its workers to have fewer skills — bad for those workers, ultimately, and not much fun for anyone negotiating on their behalf.
Or take the issue of staff cuts, an issue with which press guilds in particular are sadly familiar. If management is right and in-person work makes a business more successful and more profitable, then a union that fights for more remote work is somehow fighting for less profit and more layoffs.
Even if management isn’t good, the more workplaces become collections of atomized individuals who rarely see each other in person, the easier it can become for companies to let workers go when things go wrong – for the reasons most human. Although it is customary to refer to layoffs as the inhumane act of insensitive calculators, many managers have gone to great lengths to avoid letting people go because most people hate to see others suffer. And even the coldest calculating boss has to contend with low morale during layoffs, which hurts company performance.
But it’s probably easier to drop an e-mail correspondent than the guy sitting ten yards away. The rest of your workforce might take it less personally when a few Zoom boxes disappear from their screen. And need I mention that if a job can be done across the country, then maybe it could also be done from Bangalore, India at a fraction of the cost?
It’s worth noting that some union leaders may not think remote work is so great for organizations — the AFL-CIO fell out with its staff over return-to-work policies last year. They also don’t seem enthusiastic about the prospect of organizing disconnected individuals who don’t know each other; before the pandemic, they were waging all-out war on the gig economy.
Maybe the last few years have taught them they were wrong. But it seems more likely that it put them in the same position as the companies they bargain with: caught between the demands of their workers and the long-term interests of the organization.