The chief executive of Washingtonian magazine is throwing everything she’s got at her staff’s effort to form a union.
Catherine Merrill, the longtime head of the regional glossy magazine, personally called individual staffers last week and urged them to vote “no” when they received ballots for their union election. Those calls came in addition to a series of four group meetings in which Merrill or her brother Doug, a member of the magazine’s board of directors, tried to pressure staff not to unionize, according to three employees.
Then on Friday, the day after ballots were mailed out by the National Labor Relations Board, staffers received a 15-page document aimed at sowing doubt about the union.
Titled “How Well Do You Know The Guild?” and marked “Confidential,” the slideshow includes critical coverage of the NewsGuild and asks questions like “Do you know where your money is going?” and “Will you be paying for [the union’s] past financial mis-steps?”
“Are you certain you want to be part of this particular organization?” it asks.
A lawyer from the management-side firm Fisher Phillips, which is known for its “union avoidance” work, has advised the magazine on the union drive. Merrill said in an email to HuffPost that the magazine does not have in-house counsel and has had a relationship with the firm for 20 years.
Washingtonian is a relatively small publication, and the NewsGuild would represent some 20 staffers if it wins the election. An overwhelming majority of staffers signed union cards to trigger the election, so Merrill has her work cut out if she wants most of them to vote no.
The full-court press has made staffers wonder about the time and money being spent on the effort. Several staffers earn annual salaries below $40,000 while living in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., according to senior editor Andrew Beaujon.
An overwhelming majority of staffers signed union cards to trigger the election, so Merrill has her work cut out if she wants most of them to vote no.
Beaujon said co-workers were irritated by the pressure campaign, noting that they had already done their own investigating of the NewsGuild before trying to join. After all, they’re journalists.
“This is what we do for a living,” Beaujon said. “We did a lot of research before we made any [decisions], and we talked to a lot of people.” (Disclosure: This reporter once worked with Beaujon.)
Merrill said she opposes the union because she’s worried about costs.
“If the employees do elect to be represented by a union, there is no question that Washingtonian’s administrative costs will go up,” she wrote to HuffPost. “There will be ongoing legal fees to write and interpret a contract along with additional human resource expenses to administer two sets of rules. I’ve been very open with our employees that I would prefer that these funds instead be budgeted toward reinvesting in the magazine, our staff and developing new products for our readers.”
Merrill had a viral moment in May when she published an instantly infamous opinion piece in The Washington Post that seemed to threaten her own employees who might be reluctant to return to the office amid the pandemic. The essay prompted a walkout by staffers, and they soon announced their intention to unionize.
Much of the slideshow sent to employees highlighted critical coverage of the NewsGuild by journalist Mike Elk of Payday Report, and focused on questions surrounding dues. Members of the NewsGuild of New York, which represents employees at The New York Times and other outlets, are voting on whether to institute a temporary dues increase. The union appears to have stretched itself while organizing new shops in a rapid expansion over the last few years.
The Washingtonian employees are voting on whether to join a different NewsGuild local, the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild, where the increase under consideration does not apply.
“Will your dues go up?” the slideshow asks.
(HuffPost obtained the full slideshow but is not publishing it to protect the employee who provided it.)
The document also urges staffers to ask how many members of the NewsGuild lost their jobs last year. Journalists, both union and non-union, were laid off all over the place in 2020.
The document casts the NewsGuild as a union that “gets angry if its members ask questions (as journalists should),” and suggests a shop as small as Washingtonian would get little or no attention from the union.
It also showcases a tweet from New York Times critic-at-large Amanda Hess to suggest a union contract could backfire by carving workers out of improved benefits:
Hess told HuffPost in a message that the Times changed its parental leave policy only after the union pushed it to and called it “an incredibly cynical move” by the paper to try to withhold the benefit from union members. (Disclosure: This reporter once worked with Hess, too.)
“This anti-union presentation suggests that union members will have worse benefits than excluded employees, but the opposite is true,” Hess wrote to HuffPost. “When unions push for better working conditions, everyone benefits.”
She also asked, “Do they think Washingtonian employees are stupid?”
Employers run anti-union campaigns because they often work, especially when carried out aggressively under weak labor laws. But media companies do not have a great track record when resisting unions in recent years. In a report on the wave of unionization in journalism, Poynter noted that there have been 200 union drives in the industry over the last decade, “and over 90% of them have been successful.”
Plenty of publishers have chosen to recognize their unions, rather than wage a fight that could aggravate employees and backfire. Washingtonian staffers sought voluntary recognition but the magazine declined, requiring staffers to vote in an election. The ballots will be counted on Aug. 19, according to the election filing with the NLRB.
Washingtonian is not alone among media properties forcing an election. Forbes recently required its editorial employees to vote on whether to join the NewsGuild of New York.
When those ballots were counted last week, the “yes” votes won by a count of 67 to 7.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.