Bezos, No Fan of Unions, Gets 1,200 Union Workers at Washington Post

8/7/13Follow @curtwoodward

[Updated 12:40 pm Pacific time.]
Since founding Amazon, Jeff Bezos has poured his growing wealth and business savvy into a dizzying array of interests, from cloud computing and consumer electronics to private spaceflight and even fusion power.

One role he hasn’t typically filled, however, is labor negotiator. But that will change when Bezos takes over The Washington Post.

In his surprise $250 million deal to buy the Post, Bezos is getting the duty to negotiate with six union locals representing nearly 1,200 workers, according to the Post’s latest annual report. Most of them are newsroom jobs, but the tally also includes mailroom workers, machinists, and a smattering of other blue-collar employees (I’ve included a breakdown of the various unions below).

[Restates estimated number of U.S. Amazon employees.]
Dealing with that many unionized workers is a big change from Bezos’ self-described “day job” as CEO of Amazon, where none of his tens of thousands of U.S. employees are represented by unions.

As The New York Times recently reported, Amazon—like many large employers—is generally opposed to organized labor, which the company believes would “slow down the kind of behind-the-scenes innovation that has propelled its growth.”

It also fits with Bezos’ personal politics. Personal associates have described him as libertarian, a preference borne out in recent political contributions opposing the creation of a state income tax and supporting marriages for gay couples in Washington state.

Bezos’ unknown approach to union contract negotiations is just one of the many intriguing questions surrounding his purchase of the Post, which shocked the tech and media industries when it was announced Monday afternoon.

Cornell University law professor William A. Jacobson, a securities law expert and former civil litigator, writes that it makes “no sense” for Bezos to spend $250 million on “a stodgy, moribund unionized organization like [the Post]. For $250 million he could have built a news organization from scratch.”

“Good luck, Jeff, you’ll need it,” Jacobson added.

The Bezos era of labor relations could be put on display very soon, in the most high-profile way possible. The Washington Post’s largest union, which represents more than 800 workers in newsroom and some commercial jobs, is in the middle of updating its contract.

That union local, The Newspaper Guild, seemed heartened by the early statements from Bezos and the Post’s continuing management, which indicated that no layoffs or changes to employee conditions were imminent.

The union also noted that securities law obliges Bezos to negotiate with existing unions, and that his purchase agreement for the Post included a promise to maintain all employees’ salaries for at least a year.

It’s not like the Post’s longtime owners have been softies at the negotiating table. The Newspaper Guild, which represents editorial workers, has balked at the existing Post management’s attempts to broaden its ability to fire people and its offer of a lump sum wage increase, instead of the 3.5 percent raise the union wants.

But union activists have to be a little worried about the fresh possibility of tangling with a Bezos-led management at the negotiating table, especially after reports like the revelation of poor working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses, including a facility in Pennsylvania that reportedly got so hot during summertime that Amazon kept ambulances parked outside to whisk the workers to the hospital.

In the end, it may be the continuing march of technological change that roils the Post’s workforce more than any hardball management tactics traced back to Bezos, said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“I wouldn’t expect any direct confrontation with the unions. The big issue in newspapers, where the Post helped break down unions in the past, is with introducing new technology that cut union jobs,” he said. “I would expect he could be aggressive on that front.”

Bezos hinted as much in his letter to Post employees.

“There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership,” he wrote. “There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”

Here’s a list of the unions representing workers at The Washington Post, along with the number of workers and the end date of their contracts, as of the Post’s 2012 annual report:

DEPARTMENT NUMBER AFFILIATION CONTRACT EXPIRES
Editorial, newsroom, and commercial 819 Communications Workers of America July 26, 2013
Mailroom 282 Communications Workers of America Jan. 27, 2016
Machinists 27 International Association of Machinists Jan. 11, 2014
Paper handlers and general workers 27 Graphic Communications Conference (Teamsters) Nov. 15, 2013
Electricians 15 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers March 6, 2015
Photoengravers/platemakers  7 Graphic Communications Conference (Teamsters)  Feb. 5, 2015

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • andy maybe

    The Washington Post has always had a conservative slant. I can’t help but enjoy the irony. For employees of the Post, watch out — you sometimes get what you wish for!