The New York Times Staff Union is Fighting Management Over Sports Desk Shuttering

The staff union of the New York Times has filed a legal grievance against the company over its decision to disband the paper’s sports section and subcontract its work to non-unionized staff at The Athletic, the subscription-based sports website the Times acquired last year. The grievance, logged Thursday, alleges the company violated core principles of the Times Guild’s collective bargaining agreement—one only recently won after a bitter standoff. “The Times Guild has jurisdiction over journalism jobs at The Times, yet the company is claiming it has the right to subcontract to itself and have non-union workers do union work without the same job protections, wages and other benefits we have fought so hard to secure,” the union said in a statement, calling the company’s claims “preposterous on their face and a brazen attempt at union-busting.” (The Times declined to comment on the grievance and pointed Vanity Fair to last week’s memo.)

The staff union is demanding the company “cease and desist from further violations of the provisions of the agreement” and called for “economic remedies” for any staff that have suffered losses (though the company has ensured no staff will be laid off as a result of this decision and said sports staff will be assigned to other desks in the newsroom). The Times Guild is also seeking, among other things, “all correspondence, guidance, memoranda, and other written material promulgated by the company concerning the plans to subcontract certain work currently performed by the Sports Desk to The Athletic” and “concerning the process of reassignment.”

Times Guild sent management a petition with more than 1,100 signatures of employees and alumni to “demand that Times management stop violating our contract and respect union work.” Publisher A.G. Sulzberger has accepted an invitation from sports desk staff to meet with them directly, according to a source familiar with the situation. It’s less about trying to “get through to him and have him see the folly of his ways,” one Times reporter told me, and more a continued pursuit for answers that have been absent from the company’s public statements and other comments on the decision. “Not in any of these things is there sort of an explanation for why they’re doing this. There’s a ‘We’re allowed to do this,’ which of course the union contests some parts of, and broad platitudes about being committed to sports or trying to give readers as robust coverage as ever.” Sulzberger, the reporter said, “is sort of the only one that can really answer why this is being done; why this is being done in this way; why this is good for the Times.”

Times staff have been demanding an explanation for the company’s decision to shutter the sports desk ever since management abruptly reported the decision last week. Some staffers say they remain in the dark about how the newsroom will cover big sports events going forward. “I work on the news print hub, and a lot of what I do is taking the sports coverage that’s running online and helping to get that ready for our print edition,” says longtime staff editor Tom Coffey. “Nobody has explained to me how this is going to work after we disband the sports department and start using material from The Athletic.” Next year’s Olympic Games in Paris is top of mind for Coffey. The Times, says Coffey, “takes Olympics coverage extremely seriously, and I don’t know how that’s going to work. I don’t think anybody’s thought that through.”

As I recently reported, management invited sports staff to a morning meeting last Monday to announce the decision, but a Times news alert with the news went out to the world before executive editor Joe Kahn had even said the words aloud to the room. Days later, what was supposed to be a routine all-company meeting turned contentious when staffers pressed for management answers. Kahn admitted at the all-staff meeting that the “choreography” of the announcement was not perfect. During the meeting, Times employees also asked about differing standards and editorial processes between The Athletic and the Times, a subject of concern for some Times employees. (Deputy Wirecutter and Athletic publisher Cliff Levy, a former Times masthead member who used to oversee standards for the Times newsroom, said the “core” standards and journalistic values of The Athletic are the same as those of the Times.) 

The company has 20 days to respond to the grievance; if the company denies the grievance, the guild can then file for arbitration. Per The Washington Post, an arbitrator could ultimately “rule that Times sports coverage is guild work, which would mean its sports coverage couldn’t be subcontracted to The Athletic and the Times newsroom would have to produce the Times’s sports coverage.” An arbitrator siding with the Times, on the other hand, could set a concerning precedent for the newsroom. As one Times staffer told me last week: “There is sincere concern in the newsroom that if this is left to stand, they could do this to any section.”

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