Employees of the Washington Post picket outside the company’s offices in downtown Washington on Thursday. Hundreds of employees joined the protest as Post workers walked off the job in a one-day strike over labor issues. Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

More than 750 Washington Post staffers said they had walked off the job Thursday, refusing to work for 24 hours in the biggest labor protest at the company in nearly half a century.

Workers marched in a picket line outside The Post’s offices in downtown Washington, waving “strike” signs, ringing bells, blowing horns, beating drums, and chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, our salary floor is much too low!”

But even as strikers asked readers to abstain from the newspaper and its website for the day in solidarity, editors and other non-union managers carried on with many of the tasks that go into producing a daily news report, from writing articles to operating printing presses.

Union members said they are protesting a stalemate in bargaining with the company that has left workers without a contract for 18 months. They also object to the company’s recent offer of cost-saving buyouts to staffers, saying that the terms are stingy and that the ostensibly voluntary packages are being coerced by a threat of layoffs.

“This is a declaration by hundreds of Washington Post staffers saying that if the company is to work with us fairly, it has to respect its employees,” said Sarah Kaplan, a climate reporter and steward for The Washington Post Guild.

“I know they will still try to get a paper out,” she added. “But they can’t get a good paper out without us.”

Advertisement

Company executives deny the union’s claim that it has bargained in “bad faith” and say they still hope to reach a contract by the end of the month.

“We respect the rights of our Guild-covered colleagues to engage in this planned one-day strike,” a company spokesperson said. “We will make sure our readers and customers are as unaffected as possible.”

The company expressed confidence that it will be able to print and deliver newspapers as usual on Thursday and Friday while keeping its website operational and active as well.

But in at least one way, the impact of the walkout will be obvious to regular readers: Many staff reporters, photographers, and artists will withhold their names from their work.

The walkout comes as The Post is grappling with both internal leadership turnover and the same economic challenges that have rocked the media industry around the world.

After a decade of rapid growth under the ownership of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, executives acknowledged this fall that the company had expanded somewhat too far and that it would be forced to cut back after optimistic financial projections failed to materialize. The Post is set to lose $100 million this year – the impetus for the buyout offers, which executives hope will result in 240 voluntary departures or about 10% of the current staff. About half of those cuts would come from the newsroom.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, the company is about to get a new publisher and CEO. William Lewis, a British-born veteran media executive most recently with the Wall Street Journal, was tapped last month to replace Fred Ryan, who stepped down earlier this year.

It has been 48 years since the last major labor walkout at The Post. In the fall of 1975, printing press workers led a strike that went on for 20 weeks – a chaotic period in which some workers disabled the presses and company executives came in to operate the machinery and print the newspapers themselves. Most journalists, though, did not participate in the strike, and ultimately, The Post’s then-publisher, Katharine Graham, hired replacement workers to run the presses, essentially breaking their union.

Today, though, Guild members say enthusiasm for organizing is on the rise. Roughly 75% of eligible Post employees are now dues-paying members of the union, up from about 40% five years ago.

It follows a larger uptick in labor organizing within the media world. The walkout at The Post mirrors one almost exactly a year ago at the New York Times, where more than 1,100 workers ceased work for the day in protest over deadlocked contract negotiations. The two sides settled on a new contract five months later.

Guild statements indicate that bargaining has bogged down on matters such as salaries – the Guild is seeking minimums of $100,100 for reporters, for example, while The Post’s latest offer is $73,000 – and the size of annual cost-of-living raises.

“Our salaries are not keeping up with inflation or keeping up with our competitors,” said Kaplan, adding that The Post has lost too many employees to other news organizations for this reason.

Advertisement

The Post’s bargaining committee counters that it has signaled openness to the Guild’s request for longer contracts and agreed to many other of its priorities. Its current offer provides “significant” changes to minimum salaries, the committee said, and annual increases that are “more generous than typical Guild contracts signed in the last two decades.”

“The Post has made its last, best and final offer to the Guild,” a Post spokesperson said.

The buyout plan, though, remains a source of tension and anxiety in the newsroom. Guild members argue that the offers – which range from six months to two years of base pay, depending on the staff member’s tenure – could be far more generous because the company is paying for them out of a richly overfunded pension fund. Meanwhile, those who have been offered a buyout, they say, often feel coerced by warnings that The Post will resort to layoffs if the company doesn’t have enough voluntary departures.

Last week, interim CEO Patty Stonesifer said only about 120 employees had accepted an offer, half of what is needed just weeks before a mid-December deadline.

Katie Mettler, a reporter covering courts and crime in Maryland and co-chair of the Guild, said earlier this week that participating in the walkout meant that she might be absent for a key day in the trial of a police officer charged with shooting and killing a handcuffed man.

“It’s possible the verdict will come while I’m walking out,” she said. “I don’t take that lightly. I’m sure someone from The Washington Post will be in court Thursday. But they won’t know the case like I do.”

As it happened, the trial ended Wednesday afternoon with an acquittal. The Post story about it was published without a byline – attributing it only to “Washington Post Staff.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.