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Why Condé Nast Staffers Are Unionizing: ‘Prestige Doesn’t Pay the Bills’

On an August night in 1999, roughly 800 guests traveled by boat from Lower Manhattan to gather at the Statue of Liberty for an event to celebrate the debut of Talk magazine, the new venture from the celebrated editor Tina Brown. The party quickly took on a mythic distinction in the city’s social history as a fin de siècle assemblage of Those Who Mattered, when print media still had the cachet to make those determinations. Madonna was there — so, too, were Michael Eisner, Queen Latifah, Kate Moss, Tom Brokaw, Jerry Seinfeld and Manhattan’s most prominent publishing figures. The uninvited needed years to recover.

Society had long since been supplanted by an “elite” made up of political and creative talent that suggested a new age, but merely perpetuated the old one. “Now, you’re not exactly the tired masses, the huddled masses,” Ms. Brown, who had been braised in the snobberies of Condé Nast, where she had overseen Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, said to the crowd in a joke that in another era would demand a threaded mea culpa on Twitter and a commitment to the hard work of doing better. “But then again, I’m an immigrant who toiled here on the Concorde.”

On that night — or really any night over the years that followed — it would have been impossible to foresee a time when luxury media would demand the protections of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. This was largely a function of the tendency among educated members of the creative class, whose roommates at Williams or Yale might now be at Citibank or Davis Polk, to align themselves with a ruling establishment rather than the ordinary work force. Eventually the delusions became unsustainable.

Late last month, hundreds of employees at Condé Nast, including those at Vogue, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and Allure, noting that “prestige doesn’t pay the bills,” announced that they were forming a union and had asked company management for voluntary recognition. In another time, indifferent to the scourges of entitlement and unfairness, the jokes would have written themselves: The assistants at Vogue are mobilizing … for bigger Town Cars; they demand that all corporate retreats be held in Portofino; they’ll hijack negotiations until Keith McNally runs the cafeteria.

Tina Brown, the editor in chief of Talk magazine, with Ron Galotti, its publisher, at the launch party in 1999.Credit…Evan Agostini/Getty Images

But the world, of course, is not what it was. Editorial, video and production staff were demanding better pay, job security and stronger commitments to diversity. Young workers were drawn to Condé Nast because it embodies a certain culture, a representative of the News Guild of New York pointed out. (The guild is currently in contract negotiations with the Times.) Today, however, that isn’t enough.

In a moving video laying out the need for collective action, writers, editors, social-media managers, graphic artists, fashion assistants and researchers explained that they were fed up and burned out, and they were seeking overtime compensation for relentless hours, pay transparency and salary floors, which previously unionized colleagues at The New Yorker obtained last year. They worried about layoffs without severance and meetings where minority representation often amounted to the presence of a single person in the room.

A spokesman for Condé Nast declined to address specific grievances but said, “We plan to have productive and thoughtful conversations with them over the coming weeks to learn more.”

The change in mentality was contingent on, among other factors, a generational shift. Nursed in the heyday of neoliberalism with an aversion to earnestness, the mind-set of a cosmopolitan Generation X made little room for labor interests and imagined that unions were for people who carried lunch pails.

Those who began their careers in high-end magazines anytime through the financial crisis of 2008 largely accepted a system in which bloodline was often the pathway to success and after-hours gig work was par for the course if you didn’t have a private fortune to buoy you in a system that delivered little above retail wage. For a long time, there was broad consensus that status was a rightful form of compensation, that working in the industry that brought us Richard Avedon and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” made up for whatever discomforts arose from being forced to live with five disagreeable musicians on Avenue C.

Those in their 20s and 30s now filling junior and middle-management positions at places like Condé Nast effectively have the worst of both worlds — inadequate pay and the vanished prestige that has come at the hands of digitization.

Just a few days after the announcement about Condé Nast came the news that more than 2,600 workers at an enormous Amazon facility in Staten Island voted to form a union in what has been regarded as the biggest victory for organized labor in decades. Over the past 40 years, the share of workers represented by a union has fallen by half. But white-collar workers have increasingly galvanized. Last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even as the number of workers belonging to a union declined by 241,000, the highest unionization rates were essentially among professional workers — those in education, training and library fields.

Tightened job markets for doctoral candidates in higher education, another bastion of faded glamour, has led to a wave of organizing among graduate students. Last year, the National Labor Relations Board withdrew a ruling that would have prohibited student workers at private universities from unionizing. Strikes followed at Columbia, Harvard and New York University. Just this week, graduate students at M.I.T. voted in favor of representation by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

Looked at from a certain angle, social media offers a despairing window into the lives of older writers, editors, stylists and others in contracted creative fields, some of whom had been well-known at glossy magazines and have left New York, downsized, taken hourly wage work or resorted to GoFundMe to cover health care costs when serious illness strikes.

“Every worker knows that as they age, they are at risk of management finding them less relevant,” Jenny Singer, a staff writer at Glamour told me. “I’m 28, and I have a part-time job to supplement my income. I wouldn’t be homeless without it, but it gives me peace. This salary isn’t sustainable at all if I wanted to have a child. A living wage means being able to have a family, to exist as a regular person who might have debt or might be caring for an elderly family member. It doesn’t mean being an able-bodied 28-year-old on your parents’ health insurance.”

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