NEW YORK — The signs read, “You can’t eat prestige,” in the instantly recognizable font of the New Yorker. Of course a protest over workplace conditions at one of the most exalted magazines in the world would have good graphic design.
Remnants of a massive thunderstorm drizzled down Tuesday night as about 100 members and supporters of unions at Condé Nast magazines, including the New Yorker, picketed the Greenwich Village town house of the media empire’s most well-known executive: Anna Wintour. Because New York’s sidewalks are narrow, they marched in an elongated oval formation for about 10 minutes — just long enough for cameras to capture chants like, “Bosses wear Prada, workers get nada!” (Again, when your union is made up of fact-checkers, web producers and copy editors, you can write some pretty catchy chants.)
While the New Yorker occupies a rarefied position in American culture, members of its recently formed union — which does not include staff writers — say the magazine’s reputation is incongruous with the way it compensates vital workers. In one of the most expensive cities in the world, it pays a base salary of $42,000.
The demonstration was the latest, most aggressive public action taken by the New Yorker Union in its labor dispute with Condé Nast. The union has warned it’s on the verge of calling a strike that could seriously hamper or stop magazine production over demands related to pay, health insurance, job security and flexibility to do outside work. They have accused the company of dragging its feet for more than two years over negotiations. And they’ve been increasingly vocal, using protests and other demonstrations to drum up support from celebrities, politicians and the public.
“People assume New Yorker employees are compensated a certain way maybe because of the quality of the journalism,” said Natalie Meade, a fact-checker and chair of the magazine’s employee union guild. She said some employees still make less than $60,000 a year after 20 years at the company.
“We need to fix this problem,” she said. “People love this place and this institution so much that they want to stay here, underpaid, for two decades.”
Condé Nast spokespeople have countered that narrative, saying that they only received the union’s compensation proposals at the end of last year, and that the company has proposed raises and a substantial base salary increase. The company blasted the protest at Wintour’s home in an employee memo sent a few hours after it was announced Monday.
“At a time when journalists are being personally attacked, harassed, and targeted for their work, to put a colleague in such a position is just irresponsible,” it read.
Recent years have been especially rough on the magazine industry. Condé Nast has lost a reported $100 million as it contends with advertising and readership changes. A chief executive had projected the company was on track to profitability before the pandemic in 2020. It laid off 100 people that year.
The nearly century-old New Yorker reportedly remains one of Condé Nast’s most profitable U.S. brands, but some rank-and-file employees complain that management acts like the prestige of working there is a substitute for fair wages.
“No amount of gratitude or commendation is going to change the fact that, like, I live paycheck to paycheck, but I have no savings,” said Gili Ostfield, 29, a member of the team that produces the print magazine. She said she has worked second jobs at restaurants and bars to make ends meet.
“I would gladly shed some of the prestige to be more financially secure,” she said. “But I don’t think I should have to choose.
The New Yorker Union, which belongs to the NewsGuild of New York, formed three years ago during the recent wave of unionization in the U.S. media industry. Many of these new unions have been cash-starved because their parent organizations can’t collect dues from employees until they finalize contracts with management over employee pay and benefits — which can take years.
But the New Yorker Union has nevertheless drummed up public support through protests and daylong work stoppages. A form on the union’s website encourages readers to email their demands to the New Yorker’s editor in chief, David Remnick, and details how they can “honor our picket lines” in the event of the magazine’s first union strike.
It hasn’t come to that yet, but employees’ pressure campaign against the company has only been intensifying. It has won the support of celebrities such as Fiona Apple, as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. The two lawmakers dropped out of the magazine’s marquee event, the New Yorker Festival, at the union’s request last year.
Targeting Wintour’s house was the latest escalation. As the worldwide chief content officer for Condé Nast’s magazines, she doesn’t actually oversee the New Yorker. But Wintour is nevertheless seen as a symbolic, cake-eating Marie Antoinette by many aggrieved workers.
As employees prepared to picket her house this week, Condé Nast sent a memo trying to talk them out of it. They touted “tremendous progress” in recent union negotiations, and held out hope for a contract with pay increases “soon.”
“We respect and support our employees’ rights to organize,” the memo assured workers. But it also warned: “targeting an individual’s private home and publicly sharing its location is not acceptable.”
Union officials wrote to the company in response, pointing out that the rough location of Wintour’s home had already been publicly identified in a New York Times story about her exclusive neighborhood. They accused Condé Nast of invoking “real threats against journalists” in “what looks like an unlawful attempt to discourage” collective worker action.
Then the employees took their signs to Greenwich Village, where one of Wintour’s neighbors handed out drinks during the protest.
“I love my job and I love the magazine,” said Doug Watson, who joined the New Yorker as a web copy editor early last year. The job pays $10,000 less than his old one, he said. The trade-off was almost worth it before his child-care costs spiked during the pandemic.
“I think that somebody working at one of the world’s most prestigious magazines shouldn’t be relying on federal stimulus payments just to almost make ends meet,” he said.