The Committee

On the New Yorker

In the early 1970s, the New Yorker, like many other magazines, went through two or three years of difficult financial times — a significant decrease in advertising pages and revenues. In the editorial department, management — William Shawn, the longtime editor of the magazine, the executive editor, Robert Bingham, and the magazine’s counsel and vice president and “liaison” with the business department, Milton Greenstein — responded to the slump with stingy measures. To many staff members it gave minuscule raises or no raises at all. It eliminated a long-standing cost-of-living adjustment — theretofore automatic and annual. It cut the lifetime psychiatric-benefit amount in half — from $20,000 to $10,000. It’s true that many people who worked for the New Yorker not only went to the couch themselves but sent their wives or husbands and children to the couch, too, and that was said to be the reason for the new, draconian rule. The result of this particular cutback was that people had to terminate their analyses on the brink of discovering whom they more deeply resented, Mom or Dad, and, perhaps just as important, which of them William Shawn more closely resembled.

But for years not a voice was raised. Bob Bingham, an intelligent and genial man who happened to be married to my first cousin, would come around on some gray December afternoon as I was copyediting yet another installment of Elizabeth Drew’s Watergate diary — important, I suppose, but also tedious beyond description — and tell me I was getting a $5-a-week raise, add with embarrassment, “Well, I guess it’s better than a kick in the pants,” and leave to convey the same kind of news (and in many cases the same consolation) to the other paraliteraries hunched up against the winter in their dormitory-room-like culs-de-sac. (To be fair, I should add that my particular case was atypical, as I had been asked to look for another job at one point, but, Bartleby-like, hung on.) But even people as financially passive as people in publishing will rebel when the provocation becomes sharp and lasts long enough. And so, in 1976, well after the magazine had begun to enjoy renewed prosperity and rising stock prices, the Checking Department (the people on the phones all day; the people who read all the papers and magazines; the people, that is, who were most in touch with the professional outside world) and some fellow travelers finally began a drive to unionize the New Yorker.

The core group of checkers first met in a second-floor restaurant near the magazine’s offices. They figured no one else at the magazine would be going to a second-floor restaurant. They debated about whether to try to join the Newspaper Guild or District 65, an independent union associated with the United Auto Workers that had organized the Village Voice. The UAW connection held a certain proletarian appeal for those whom one of the checkers, Evan Cornog, now dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University, has called “some of us baby Marxists.” But the Guild won out, and when the checkers’ small revolutionary cell contacted them, the Guild people told them how to go about organizing, how to inform management about the drive, and so on. The checkers proceeded to speak, very quietly, at lunches and in apartments on the then-seedy Upper West Side, to other members of the staff who the rebels thought were safe solidarity bets. Ultimately, twenty-two members of the magazine’s one-hundred-plus editorial staff joined the Organizing Committee that the Guild had instructed the rebels to form.

“It would destroy the magazine.”

Tweet

The editorial staff consisted of editors, copy editors, proofreaders, checkers, administrative people, et cetera, and did not include “contributors”; that is, writers and artists. Because most contributors didn’t receive salaries — they worked as independent contractors, generally — they probably wouldn’t have qualified for union membership, but the Organizing Committee took some pains to talk to them about unionizing; many favored the idea for the staff but not for themselves. Calvin Trillin, John Brooks, and Paul Brodeur, among others, were particularly — and bravely, I think — outspoken in their support of the staff. The majority of the important editors and writers stayed on the sidelines, some because they felt the matter was none of their business, some out of genuine uncertainty, some out of deference to Shawn, and some, I believe, silently hoping that the union drive would do the job they felt needed to be done but didn’t have the courage to try to do themselves: get Shawn out. After weeks of hushed conversations and yet more meetings, a majority of the staff signed union cards. Since only something like 25 percent of the company’s employees had to sign cards in order for the National Labor Relations Board to hold a vote on the question of unionization, it looked, in early October of 1976, very much as though the workers at the magazine would soon edge closer to the workers of the world.

On October 6, Shawn and George Green, the head of the business department of the New Yorker, received the following letter:

October 6, 1976

Mr. George Green
President

Mr. William Shawn
Editor

The New Yorker
25 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036

Dear Sirs:

Please be advised that the Newspaper Guild of New York has been asked by the employees in the Editorial Department of the New Yorker to organize them for the purpose of collective bargaining.

Please be further advised that the following employees are members of the organizing committee:

John Bennet
Katherine Bouton
Evan Cornog
Juan Cruz, Jr.
Jane O. Dienstfrey
Ann Goldstein
Debora Graves
Janet C. Groth
Betty Guyer
Patti Hagan
Fred Keefe
Jo Ann Kiser
Jane Mankiewicz
Judith Mellecker
Anne Mortimer-Maddox
Susan Pelzer
Katha Pollitt
Ruth C. Rogin
Richard S. Sacks
Sara Spencer
Thomas Teal

The Newspaper Guild of New York is certain that you are familiar with Federal Laws guaranteeing employees the right to join a union without interference by the Employer and that you will respect these rights.

The Newspaper Guild of New York stands ready to take all steps necessary to protect any employee from acts of harassment or any other form of discrimination.

Very truly yours,

Michael N. Crumrine,
Local Representative

As I’ve said, the meetings held by those at the heart of the organizing drive before the Guild dispatched this letter were confidential, and evidently the secret was well kept, because Shawn and Bob Bingham seemed to be caught entirely off-guard. I believe, in fact, that Shawn must have been very angry at Bingham, who, as executive editor, in charge of most personnel matters, might have been expected to know that trouble was not only brewing but boiling and to warn Shawn about it. Bingham had retained many of his nonfiction-editing duties when Shawn named him executive editor. Richard Harris, John McPhee, Richard Goodwin, Calvin Trillin, and many other of the magazine’s first-rank writers had enjoyed long and harmonious working relationships with Bingham starting shortly after he arrived from the Reporter in 1964. And it had been rumored that Bingham might be in line to succeed Shawn as editor.

I and many others didn’t believe that Shawn ever wanted to pass his mantle on to Bingham, or to anyone else. As a college English major, graduate student in literature, and English teacher in prep school, I had a mind too filled with Greek and Shakespearean tragic heroes, Dickensian manipulators, and Dostoevskian monomaniacs not to see Shawn in that kind of literary light almost right from the beginning. His personality contained a combination of qualities anathematic to the graceful relinquishing of power: genius, industry, a martyr’s demeanor, and a fanaticism about the New Yorker that he proclaimed so loudly and so tiresomely that it convinced others — and maybe even himself — that actions he might be taking to preserve his own preeminence were merely actions taken to preserve the preeminence of the publication. And that he was right about this for so many years — that his own best interests and those of the magazine seemed in many crucial respects indistinguishable, because the magazine was such a great cultural and commercial success under Shawn’s rule — made it hard for others to tell when he stopped being right, or to speak up when he stopped being right, or to take measures against the time when he would stop being right.

Shawn could carry the equivalency between his own total authority and the magazine’s well-being to extreme lengths. If he didn’t like a suggestion about, or a demurer to, the editorial or administrative policies he pursued, he would sometimes issue the apocalyptic pronouncement that “It would destroy the magazine.” A straightforward public acknowledgment of journalistic error would “destroy the magazine.” Paying people more when they took on greater responsibility instead of waiting until the end of the year to give them a raise would make the New Yorker too much like other places, and that conformity would, if it went too far, destroy the magazine.

In many cases, Shawn and only Shawn “knew” why doing Y instead of X would bring ruin to the New Yorker. Our stylebook was to be kept secret. Payment rates for fiction were kept secret. Negative mail about writing was generally kept secret from the magazine’s writers. Negative mail about a short story was often kept secret even from the story’s editor. What appeared to be perfectly innocuous nonfiction assignments were often kept secret. Salaries were, of course, secret. Occasionally Shawn even tried to maintain an illusion of secrecy about information on the public record. In 1984, the New York Times ran a piece regarding Shawn’s appointment of John Bennet and Charles McGrath as co–deputy editors, but at the magazine the matter remained wrapped in mystery and uncertainty. I can’t help thinking that the effort to organize a union at the New Yorker was so radically upsetting to Shawn in part because it called into question the perfection of his rule and in part because it was a secret about the magazine that he didn’t originate, that he hadn’t even been privy to. If, as he often maintained, he governed the magazine only because he had the implicit, daily consent of those he worked with — if he was merely the head of a body that did its work with ideal coordination — the union letter must have been like being slapped in the face by his own hand.

At first Shawn seemed willing to admit that he might be responsible for some of the disgruntlement that gave rise to the drive. On October 12, he sent a letter to the staff that, even if it did try to finesse the practical issues involved, was measured and conciliatory.

October 12, 1976
To the Staff:

Last Wednesday, October 6th, our publishing office and I received letters from the Newspaper Guild notifying us that some members of the staff had asked the Guild to organize the editorial employees of The New Yorker. I do think, however, that a union would be harmful to our staff, and therefore to the magazine. If I thought that a union would truly improve the lot of the staff — and I have in mind many considerations, including the financial — I would be for it, because I cannot distinguish between the welfare of “the staff” and the welfare of “the magazine.” Editorially, our staff, our artists, and our writers, together, are the magazine.

Since salaries doubtless had something to do with the action taken by the people who appealed to the Guild, I would like, first, to discuss that question. I believe that every person on the staff should be paid as much as people in comparable jobs are paid anywhere in New York City. As I look back on the magazine’s history, I should say that most of the time, though not always, this objective has been reached. There have been occasional mistakes, oversights, lapses, and inequities, but they have soon been rectified. For thirty-eight years, as managing editor and editor, I — along with colleagues — ­ have fought steadily for higher salaries, and for higher payments for the material we publish, and also for instituting our retirement plan and our profit-sharing (“participation”) plan. We have won most of these fights, and we have lost some. At this particular moment, some salaries are lower than they should be. There have been many individual increases in the last few years, as you know, but inflation has cut into them, and we still have some catching up to do. Every year, all salaries here are reviewed. This year, as in past years, early in September (long before we received the Guild letter), the reviewing process began, and a number of increases were decided on — increases based in part on our financial report for the first six months of the year. I think it would be wrong, from everybody’s point of view, for us to immobilize ourselves and hold up our increases out of fear that some people will misinterpret them.1Increases will be announced and put through on schedule.

The New Yorker is a creative, collaborative enterprise unlike any other. It is in many ways unique among publications. Our policy has been to hire talented people (talented and philosophically sympathetic people, I should say) who not only are qualified for their specific jobs — the jobs for which they are hired — but also show promise of being able to move ahead into more interesting, more satisfying, and better-paying work. This is not simply a theory, or a dream. This is what has actually happened. Dozens of people have advanced, for example, from typist or secretarial jobs into jobs as checkers or proof readers; or gone from jobs as checkers or proof readers or Talk reporters or messengers into jobs as editors or into writing for the magazine. Everything has been open to everybody. The organization has not been stratified or rigid. This openness and this freedom of movement have been basic to the way The New Yorker works. This is a place in which scores of people, over the years, have learned and have found themselves. We have not thought in job “categories.” . . . I think that a union might introduce a rigidity in the way the office functions, hinder the free flow of people from one kind of work to another, reduce the opportunity for experiment, and reduce the emphasis on the individual. I also think that it would tend to polarize the office. What we have here — and that goes for all of us — is freedom; and I don’t want to see us give it up in any way.

This office was meant to be, and is supposed to be, a humane place, where everything is conducted in accordance with the highest moral principles. The New Yorker itself presumably reflects what we are; and if it does not — if the magazine publicly stands for high principle and privately is unfair to the people who work here — it is a sham. Therefore, if in the judgment of any one of you the office is not the kind of place I think it is, to that extent I have failed. If any of you have had grievances and I have not heard about them — and this may be the case — something has gone seriously wrong. Whatever that is, I do not think that a union could correct it better than we could ourselves, talking with one another.

I believe we have at The New Yorker a friendly, gentle, free, informal, democratic atmosphere. It took several decades to achieve this atmosphere, and I think it would be tragic if we lost it. It’s in this atmosphere that some of the country’s finest writers and comic artists have developed and flourished, and that all of us together, including every person who reads these words, have produced what may be the noblest publication that has ever existed. To alter our atmosphere would be to alter the character of the magazine. That would be a loss not only to all of us who work here but to the country as a whole. There is less and less good, honest work being done in the world, and for that reason, among many reasons, it is important that the magazine hold to its own course and its own ideals. Not long ago, a woman reader wrote to me saying that The New Yorker made her “proud to be a human being.” Clearly, to her, and to others, The New Yorker is more than a magazine. At the very least, in a period in which so much of life is debased and corrupted we are trying, I believe, to do something of spiritual value. I look upon our effort with awe and gravity. The New Yorker is strong, but at the same time it is fragile. For everybody’s sake, I hope we will do nothing to hurt it.

A final word on the union. The decision is yours to make, and I hope that you will consider everything most carefully before you take a step that I think is against your best interests — against the best interests of all of us at The New Yorker. Whatever you decide, I will do everything possible to help you. I will be available to anyone who wants to discuss any of this with me.

William Shawn

In the next month, Shawn hired or acquiesced in the hiring of Proskauer Rose LLP, to this day perhaps the most militant, controversial, and effective anti-union law firm in the United States. In meetings with members of the Organizing Committee, the Proskauer guy proceeded to try to strike as many voters from the list as possible, claiming that for this or that reason they weren’t eligible; impugned the motives of the Guild organizers; and used tactics designed to delay the vote and thus erode support for the union. Shawn also sent Jonathan Schell to all the public meetings to see if he could theorize everyone out of solidarity. We, on our end, were not exactly a model of revolutionary fervor. We found the representatives from the Newspaper Guild a little underwhelming, and elusive about the need for future New Yorker union members to walk out when and if other publications went on strike. And yet for a while we held our ground. This led to Shawn’s second letter about the unionization drive at his magazine.

November 11, 1976
To the Staff:

Most of our history has never been set down. Those of us who have worked here for a long time have not thought or talked much about it; we have taken it for granted. The same is true of just how our office works. Because of the problems we now find ourselves discussing, I think it may be helpful for me to try to provide some basic information about the office, and that will involve some history. I am going to have to say more about myself than in other circumstances I would choose to. Also, I will say something of what I feel about the problems themselves. In September of 1939, when Harold Ross, the editorial founder of The New Yorker, was its editor, I was given the job of managing editor. Beginning that year and continuing every year until Mr. Ross died, in December of 1951, Mr. Ross, R. Hawley Truax, and I met in the fall to discuss the salary of everyone on the staff, and the payment rates for all the material the magazine published. Mr. Traux was there as what was called a liaison man between the editorial office and the publishing office; he was on the business-office, not the editorial, payroll, and I would describe him as a representative of the publishing office who had his quarters on one of the editorial floors and who managed to serve the business department and the editorial department impartially. Paradoxically, he was working at The New Yorker because he was an old friend of Mr. Ross’s. I was at these meetings to advise, and to make financial recommendations that fell within my province. After due discussion, Mr. Ross invariably accepted what I recommended. Mr. Ross, of course, was there as editor, and it was he who made the final decisions as to what salary and payment-rate recommendations should be passed along to our publishing office. Mr. Truax took those recommendations down to the publishing office, where every year, without exception, all of them were accepted. . . .

In 1966, Mr. Truax retired, and was succeeded by his assistant and protégé Milton Greenstein. The meetings were now attended by Mr. Greenstein, Mr. Hofeller, and me. Then, in 1972, Mr. Hofeller retired, and was succeeded as executive editor by Robert Bingham, who would now advise, and make financial recommendations within his province. The meetings were held by Mr. Greenstein, Mr. Bingham, and me. And I invariably accepted what Mr. Bingham recommended. I continued to make the final recommendations, and the publishing office continued to accept them all, without exception, and also, as far as I ever knew, without question. At any time in those fifty-two years, the publisher (from 1925 to 1969, Raoul Fleischmann, the business founder of The New Yorker; and from 1969 to the present, his son, Peter Fleischmann) had the right to exercise his authority and either say no to a given recommendation or simply take the whole matter of editorial expenditures into his own hands. But the point is, he did not. He said yes to everything we asked for, and he took what we asked for on faith. . . .

All of us here have worked together for a long time in greater harmony than we had any reason to expect. The world outside has been somewhat less harmonious. We were, I think, lucky and privileged. We did what we did here in accordance with a large number of tacit and informal understandings. Our constitution was not written down. . . . We had to believe one another, and we had to trust one another, almost recklessly. And it worked. By some chance, I was cast in the role of arbiter among a host of potentially competing interests . . . and I tried to merge all these interests, as free of competition and contention as was possible, into a single interest. I was fanatical about The New Yorker, but not so fanatical that I would have been willing for anyone here to be sacrificed — or to suffer hardship — in order for The New Yorker to be published. When it came to editorial decisions, I had the help of many equally disinterested editors, who wanted everyone here to be treated with fairness and the greatest possible human consideration, and who shared my editorial standards and principles. . . . It is not digressive to mention that the extraordinary working arrangement we have had between the business office and the editorial department would not have been possible if the four “business” people involved had not been extraordinary men, with a rare, even eccentric approach to their business life: Raoul Fleischmann continued as publisher long after his connection with The New Yorker ceased to be of financial advantage to him; he stayed on, rather than sell his controlling interest to someone else, because he had come to take pride in being the publisher of The New Yorker, and he believed that if he sold out, the new owners would almost surely not follow his policy of not interfering with the independence, editorial and financial, of the editorial department, and thus would threaten The New Yorker as we know it; instead of selling, paying his capital-gains tax, and retiring as a far richer man than he was, he stayed on, for what I call reasons of sentiment. Peter Fleischmann, out of respect for his father and pride in the traditions of the magazine, followed exactly the same course. He, too, was, and is, staying on, to his financial disadvantage, for reasons of sentiment. He wanted, as his father had wanted, to see the magazine perpetuated. Then we arrive at Mr. Truax, who, out of his devotion to the memory of Mr. Ross and to the magazine, worked for a modest salary and then, for several years, for no salary at all — and worked harder than anyone else in the place — just to keep the magazine going. He saw us through a number of critical and perilous periods. And Mr. Greenstein, out of his devotion to his mentor Mr. Truax and to the magazine, decided to spend his working life at The New Yorker rather than join some big law firm and earn far more than he earns here. . . .

The Organizing Committee speaks of The New Yorker as “a profit-making corporation.” It is, but not in any orthodox way, for the so-called owners, on the seventeenth floor, though they’ve taken a businessman’s satisfaction in seeing the enterprise they headed flourish, have clearly not been doing what they do for personal profit. This is, however, a public corporation, and there are outside stockholders, mostly strangers, toward whom, by law, the Board of Directors must act responsibly. But the important question is, what has the company done as far as “employees” are concerned? The Organizing Committee writes . . . that The New Yorker “has not been paying its employees more than it has had to.” That is a misapprehension. I know this from my own experience of having engaged hundreds of people to work here, and of having listened to what they told me when they were applying for jobs and later; I also know it from my own experience as a Talk reporter and a sub-editor. Many people, at many times, would have happily worked for less than they were paid, simply because The New Yorker meant more to them than “a job” or “a career.” I don’t think that the company has ever taken advantage of this. In any event, the fact is that salaries have often been higher than they had to be. The same thing applies to our writers and artists; in various periods of our history, the writers and artists would have been happy to work for less than they were paid. I, for one, have always believed that the company should pay the people at The New Yorker as much as it can possibly afford, no matter how little they might be willing to work for. (In its October 27th letter, the committee says that adequate salaries are “a right, not a privilege,” but who among us here thinks otherwise? Not I.) The company should pay everyone as much as it can afford, stopping short only where the net profit or dividends would fall below a safe level — that is, would become so low as to threaten, directly or indirectly, the continuation of the “business” framework within which the magazine can be published. . . . For a brief period in the recent past, because of inflation, business uncertainties, and (in retrospect) my own overcaution, after I listened to compelling arguments for caution, some salaries, like some payments, have been lower than I thought they should be or Mr. Bingham thought they should be — and we have been in the process of catching up, as I wrote in my letter of October 12th to the staff. That brings us up to the present. As for the future, I intend to do everything I can — and I have already done much — to make sure that the editorial and financial policies of the past will continue under whoever succeeds me as editor. There is a reasonable chance that that can be accomplished. The Guild, however, can do nothing at all to guarantee that either our editorial policies or our financial policies will be continued. On the contrary. In my judgment, the arrival of the Guild in our office will be the beginning of the end of the very policies that have made The New Yorker what it is.

The Organizing Committee, in its October 27th letter, writes, “The New Yorker is a place where high editorial standards and artistic expression have always counted more than the demands of the market. Most of us came to work here for that reason.” But who established those standards? The standards did not establish themselves. They were established by people (and I am only one among many) who resisted the various pressures exerted by the outside world — to be popular, to be commercially successful (with the financial rewards that would accompany that), to be fashionable — and who played their part in fending off the big corporations that wanted to buy The New Yorker and might have been prepared to make tempting offers to our publishers. And our publishers were subject to another sort of temptation: the temptation, after the magazine became successful, to exploit our prestige, our literary and journalistic preeminence, either by selling the magazine or by using it as a base on which to build a number of other, related businesses, like book publishing and book clubs, as other publications have done, or by using our good name and, whatever the risks, gradually popularizing the content of the magazine, increasing our circulation, raising our advertising rates accordingly, and thereby putting themselves in a position, at least, to make enormous profits. They did none of these things. Again, going counter to almost every normal business impulse, they went along with us — the editorial staff — not only in letting us run the editorial department but in letting us knowingly, consciously maintain our “high editorial standards” in defiance of the “demands of the market.” We were getting out the best magazine we knew how, with no concessions to fashion or popular taste, and that kind of magazine, clearly, would appeal to a relatively small public, and was, on the face of it, “non-commercial.” Publishers who do that are something more than just “management” or “a profit-making corporation.” . . . Yet the Organizing Committee, unwittingly, is trying to reduce The New Yorker to “a business,” with employer on one side and employees on the other — or, more precisely, with management on one side and labor on the other — and if the committee succeeds, that is what we will have: a business. But what will have become of The New Yorker? . . .

One member of the committee has said to me, “We don’t want anyone to act for us; we want to act for ourselves.” But I had always assumed — and I’m sure most of our editors, writers and artists assumed — that I was one of “ourselves,” and that when I acted I was acting, by common consent, in the name of all of us, of “ourselves.” Moreover, to repeat, we believed one another and trusted one another. But on Wednesday, October 6th, when, without warning, the Guild letter arrived, the fifty-two-year-long spell was broken. A delicate balance of forces was upset. In an instant, the atmosphere — so dearly achieved, out of the dedication and years of work of many people — was transformed.

What the Organizing Committee implicitly proposes is that the financial affairs of the editorial department be turned over to the publishing office, or “management” — and if that actually takes place it may not be long before business people will be directly interfering not only with the editorial methods of The New Yorker but also with the editorial policies and, at last, the substance and character of The New Yorker. What the Organizing Committee is calling forth, too, is a management that, in relations with the magazine’s employees, will act like management — a management that, in the nature of things, will be an adversary and will learn the rules of a very harsh and ruthless game. I can only hope that pressure will not bring counter-pressure, threats will not evoke counter-threats, rancor will not breed rancor. That would be debilitating and brutalizing. I don’t know how the lot of us, whatever we intend, could collaborate in a creative enterprise — in which we all depend on one another — against such a background. And in my mind that is only one of many dread possibilities; I spoke of some in my earlier letter, and there are others I may be able to discuss in the future. Meanwhile, I see The New Yorker — The New Yorker we know — as having been placed in jeopardy. I persist in my hope that all of us, together, can still find our way out of this predicament. I urge you to think deeply about how a union might affect The New Yorker. The New Yorker has been a miracle, but it is a miracle that can be extinguished. Nothing like it ever happened before, and nothing like it will ever happen again. Please do whatever you can to preserve it.

William Shawn

I don’t really know where to begin to comment on this piece of writing. Its genuine passion and dedication speak for themselves. And so, in my opinion, do its self-contradictions, intimations of retribution, implicit self-congratulation, and disingenuous modesty. How can it be that the editorial department has complete financial independence, on the one hand, and radical dependence on stockholders’ financial satisfaction, on the other? Even the hints of accepting blame that run through the first letter have all but disappeared here. It is the Organizing Committee that is tyrannical, unheeding, potentially “brutalizing.” The letter often implies that the Committee sprang out of nowhere, in response to no real grievances of any kind, and it says outright that the Committee was trying to create a management that had never before existed.

“The New Yorker is strong, but at the same time it is fragile. For everybody’s sake, I hope we will do nothing to hurt it.”

Tweet

If there is any one general theme here, besides the usual apocalyptic warnings about destruction of the magazine, it is the disavowal of ordinariness, as if ordinariness were the eighth deadly sin. The company is profit-making “but not in any orthodox way.” The publishers “went counter to almost every normal business impulse.” The New Yorker is a “miracle.” And so forth. To someone so convinced that those under him shared the ideals he wanted to believe he represented — gentility, fairness, modesty, self-sacrifice, antimaterialism, humanity, and above all a devotion to truth as expressed through the written word — it must have come as quite a shock to see that a lot of his employees also considered putting out the New Yorker to be a job, one for which they were increasingly poorly paid.

This written oratory, in concert with the ruthlessness of management’s hired legal gun and the native disinclination of a great number of staff members to fight once a real fight was staring us in the face, plus a true desire for a noncoercive workplace — some of us had begun to take to heart the argument that we might be forced by union membership to take actions we might not want to take — resulted in an ebbing of the organizing fervor. William Whitworth, a nonfiction editor, working as a disinterested party, carried messages from Shawn to the Committee and went back to Shawn with new messages. The Newspaper Guild, when it began to suspect that not much more than 50 percent of the staff would vote for the union, also began to back away. When, in an open meeting, one of the Guild representatives suggested the possibility of the staff’s forming an in-house “union,” you could almost feel the deflation of our unionizing zeal. An in-house Employees Committee was proposed — it was an idea that had been mentioned from time to time during both the secret and open meetings that preceded the union drive — and eventually accepted. Here is the letter, addressed to Katherine Bouton, who had served as the Organizing Committee’s chief liaison with Whitworth, that ended the union movement at the New Yorker.

November 23, 1976
Katherine E. Bouton
Nineteenth Floor

Dear Miss Bouton:

In addressing this letter to you, I address all the members of the staff who signed yesterday’s letter to me. I am happy to accept the proposals you make, and wish only to define more precisely my understanding of your proposals and your intent.

1. The function of the nine-member committee you propose, like that of the executive editor, would be advisory in nature.

2. The committee may raise for discussion questions concerning minimum salary levels for job categories or questions concerning an individual salary if a staff member brings the problem to the committee. Both the minimums and the individual salaries which are subject to such discussion are limited to those under twenty-five thousand dollars a year — though this figure is adjustable upward for inflation.

3. Unlike editorial salaries and payments, “benefits” (our retirement plan, our participation plan, and our medical plan), being company-wide, fall under the jurisdiction of the publishing office, and not under my jurisdiction; therefore, any recommendations that the committee might make to me, and that I might, in turn, make to the publishing office, would be subject to a different order of scrutiny.

4. The “periodic general salary reviews” referred to in your letter would be, again, of salaries under twenty-five thousand dollars a year; and the three-member subcommittee would be present at the meetings with the executive editor, the liaison man, and me in an advisory role. Discussions of any individual’s salary must be initiated by the individual; no one’s salary will be revealed to the three-member subcommittee or to the nine-member committee by the executive editor, the liaison man, or me.

I suggest that my first meeting with the committee be held shortly after this year’s salary increases have been announced.

With best wishes and affection,
William Shawn


Out of the whole crisis — it was a time of closed doors and whispered conversations, which-side-are-you-on glares in the hall, and a good deal of welcome diversion from the often surprisingly dull task of abetting the creation of a weekly miracle — a couple of episodes and impressions remain particularly vivid in my memory. In the thick of things, I went to see Bingham about a matter unrelated to the union. I was on my way into his office and he was on his way out, and when I asked him the question I wanted to ask, he said, “I’m sorry but I don’t have time to discuss that right now — I’m too busy grinding my heel into the face of the oppressed worker.” How deeply miserable he must have felt. He had had the rug pulled out from under him by people he considered friends, and his autocratic boss no doubt lowered the boom on him. And how ashamed I am to confess that in my support of the union and my free-floating anger at Shawn and, really, all authority, I gave almost no thought to Bingham’s perspective and feelings.

Near the end of the six weeks, when we were working on the specific proposal for an in-house committee, there was a meeting at John Bennet’s apartment, and during a lull — Katherine Bouton was calling Whitworth to ask him to ask Shawn whether he would agree to some particular suggestion — I picked up Bennet’s guitar and began singing a union song. (I think it was “We Shall Not Be Moved.”) Someone said, “Gee, you’re really good. I never knew you played the guitar.” Actually, I’m not good at all, but the few rudimentary things I know I know well, and I’d been singing union songs and Weavers’ songs and Almanac Singers’ songs and Spanish Civil War songs and Woody Guthrie songs for more than thirty years, having learned them at my father’s and uncles’ knees, so I suppose I do that kind of three-chord strumming with a certain sentimental middle-class authority. Some other people asked me to sing some more and then joined in, and Bennet, who was looking on, and who had been working hard for years to learn jazz guitar, shook his head and said, “This is the way it always is — somebody like me busts his ass to play really well and then someone like you comes along and plinks something out and everyone loves it.”

I played and sang those songs that evening with two or three kinds of embarrassment. First of all, it seemed merely socially a silly thing to be doing. Then there was the fact that we had been moved, we had not rolled the union on or stuck to it, we had not kept our hand upon the dollar and our eye upon the scale, none of us would, that night, dream of Joe Hill, standing there as big as life and smiling with his eyes. I was embarrassed about the ineffectuality and yes, ordinariness of the Guild people we’d come in contact with. I was embarrassed for Shawn and the rest of the magazine’s management, because they appeared to have not the faintest inkling that much of what they’d said and done to fight off the union was typical of any management fighting off any union — unremarkable, unmiraculous. Again, ordinary. The union would destroy what we had all worked so hard to achieve. The New Yorker is different. We are above the crudity and coerciveness of bargaining and strikes. We are so very generous. There are no “sides” to be on. You will really suffer if you get the union. And so on. And, finally, I was embarrassed that I had looked so condescendingly on the political and economic values and ideas of many members of my own family, however romantic and oversimplified those ideas and values might have been. For here were liberals like Shawn and Jonathan Schell turning to the right when the capitalist chips were down — just as I had been told, from my childhood on, liberals usually do, often with no embarrassment at all. Just as I was doing myself, at least passively, by backing down, by not keeping the courage of what I thought were my convictions.

The Employees Committee turned out to be largely powerless. I served on it for the first year of its existence, and in my opinion it accomplished next to nothing besides furnishing Shawn with a forum for his anger, intolerance, and windy, logic-defying self-justifications. The Committee did manage to get the company to help pay for eyeglasses, pay part of the tuition for certain work-related classes, and even issue a benefits pamphlet, but its salary recommendations and other important suggestions went largely unheeded.

” The New Yorker is different. We are above the crudity and coerciveness of bargaining and strikes. We are so very generous.”

Tweet

The three-person salary subcommittee — the group that met with Shawn, Greenstein, and Bingham to argue for substantial raises — was not only unsuccessful in its mission but, historically, suffered even greater indignity and abuse than did the Committee as a whole. For some years, the subcommittee prepared painstaking tables of comparison between the New Yorker’s salaries and salaries at other magazines, pointed out that the cost of living in New York often goes up faster than it does elsewhere, and argued for full and fair raises on promotion instead of at the end of the year, only to be met with indifference and condescension, and sometimes derision and threats, at the hands of Shawn and Greenstein. Greenstein — who I’ve been told once advised a staff member not to buy his apartment in the Dakota when it went co-op because the whole idea of co-op apartment houses was (according to Greenstein) inherently flawed and bound for immediate failure — repeatedly tried to argue that the magazine’s contributions to the profit-sharing plan ought to be considered a kind of pay increase, even after he had admitted that the argument was specious. He tried it again in 1979, well after the magazine had resumed its profitable course without adequate redress of the salary grievances that had given rise to the union movement.

The unsatisfactory pay increases subsequent to the 1976 confrontation led the 1979 subcommittee to outdo previous subcommittees in their efforts to present a convincing case to management; the tables of comparison were more meticulous and detailed than ever before, job descriptions were scrupulously assembled, and the subcommittee circulated these documents, along with their recommendations, to the staff as a whole before the meeting, and got seventy-six people — nearly three quarters of the staff — to sign a letter saying that they endorsed the recommendations. These efforts, in turn, led Shawn and Greenstein — and even Bob Bingham — to outdo previous management response in rhetoric, vitriol, and belligerence. Immediately after the meeting, which began with a rambling speech by Shawn that lasted an hour and a half, one of the three subcommittee members sat down and recorded what he or she remembered of what was said. Some excerpts:

Shawn: On p. 6 (Mr. Shawn meant p. 2) we have the committee concerned “about the plight of a group of senior employees . . .” But is there a plight? What is this plight? Most of them are valuable senior employees and they are paid fairly in relation to everyone else on the place. These employees have become senior not because we asked them to stay on. We should have had a policy that after ten years, a policy that if they didn’t rise to something after ten years, then they should leave. They’re eccentric, unusual people, and we keep them on.

In defense against the committee’s cruel implications that somehow we are mistreating these people, I cite the magazine’s humane policy. We did not want to force them to leave and we kept giving increases. They were paid because we were doing the humane thing. Their skill — it does not improve with the years, sometimes it declines. They should be and are paid fairly! We could have had a policy of no longer letting people stay, but we’ve been keeping them on. But the Committee’s recommendation would lead to substitution of an inhumane policy for the magazine’s humane policy.

Just because they’ve stayed on for 25 years doesn’t mean they should have [large raises]. We didn’t want them to be here 25 years. But they are. And we’ve put up with it.

On p.11 of the Salary Statement re. Typists — why is this second paragraph here? What is the implication of listing all the other jobs that Typists do? Is it that the salary should take into account those other jobs? We think that giving typists these brief opportunities to get a little experience, to be seen around the magazine — we think that’s a good thing. The Committee would freeze the typists into typing jobs. This can and will be considered.

I knew, of course, that [our library] did indexing. But it has become far more elaborate than Ross or I ever wanted it to be. The rest can and will be discontinued. But we are not vindictive. Even though we are reducing the amount of work, none of our four librarians will be dismissed.

Is it any wonder that the staff was shocked and angered? How does the staff know you’re not right? You’re wrong. But the Salary Statement is filled with percentages and numbers that look good. Those are shocking figures. Editors have misunderstood the whole thing. Editors have been in here asking me how can this be? They’ve been taking up my time — three hours, three-and-a-half hours. Is it any wonder that the staff was shocked?

I passed ten people in the hall on the day of the open meeting — now maybe I’m paranoid — ­but those ten people looked at me in an unfriendly way. I passed one person three times. And three times that person never said hello. I think it was this Salary Statement that did it.

How can The New Yorker be in business if The New Yorker knows so little about what it’s doing? This has caused a lot of suspicion, to use a popular Advisory Committee word. . . .

Subcommittee member: Mr. Shawn, you make the staff sound like it’s made up of a bunch of average incompetents. How does the best magazine in the country come out every week if so many on the staff are incompetent?

Shawn: I didn’t say that. Goings On now, it’s an entire disgruntled department and they’d be better off to leave. . . .

Bingham: I think this is awful! That the committee knowingly made a recommendation for $100 raises, that it knew would not be granted.

Subcommittee member: People on the staff are adults and this is business. Adults are used to disappointments. Usually you don’t get exactly what you ask for. Adults can take it.

Bingham: This is a crude pressure tactic. Now you’re getting the reaction you wanted. I’m as amazed by your reactions as you are by ours.

Subcommittee member: Every working person in the U.S. has this experience. It’s natural. Your supervisor asks on your behalf. You talk to your supervisor.

Shawn: Well, again, I’ve led a sheltered life. . . .

Shawn: You’ve created a whole new world that’s replaced The New Yorker. I don’t think all of this would have happened spontaneously. Out of this have grown a lot of things unanticipated. It’s very disruptive, very sad. Many people say they don’t want to come to work if this is how The New Yorker treats its people. This used to be a happy place. . . .

Subcommittee member: I disagree that the atmosphere has been poisoned. Despite the salaries, people like to work here — they take great pride in the magazine, and in the work they do, they give completely of themselves.

Shawn: You all feel the atmosphere is still good. It’s less good than it once was. A writer who’d been away two years came in the other day — read the signs posted on the bulletin board, asked what’s this all about? I asked him to take a walk down the hall, see if he noticed a change. He said, “I feel a coldness. There used to be a certain warmth.” At The New Yorker we just don’t do things that other people do. If in our editorial columns we stand up for high principles, if within the magazine we show disregard for people’s feelings — if we are charged with exploitation — then it’s hypocritical.

And so it was. Hypocritical, I mean. The institution itself mirrored the famous paradox of the contents of the magazine it put out: preponderantly liberal — or antimaterialistic, or spiritual, or muckraking, or even vaporously socialistic — writing physically sandwiched and financially supported by fancy advertising for extravagant goods like Tiffany diamond necklaces, Mercedes-Benz automobiles, entire islands up for sale. Shawn either did not want to admit or could not see that it is the obligation of capitalistic enterprises to maximize profits and that part of doing so is, with varying degrees of ruthlessness, holding down costs, and that he was, willy-nilly, wittingly or unwittingly, sitting on the salary lid. The situation tied him into knots of anger and illogic and mired him in a swamp of self-contradictions. In my opinion, he bought the magazine’s much-vaunted editorial independence partly by running an aesthetically respected and commercially successful magazine whose stock value rose and rose and partly by acceding to Milton Greenstein’s advice to pinch salary pennies.

I must admit that my blood still boils when I recall Shawn’s blustering, often incomprehensible self-righteousness during the union drive and during other events that I witnessed or was part of. But the boiling falls to a simmer when I remind myself how great an editor William Shawn was. In that same year, 1979, alone, he oversaw the publication of Octavio Paz on Mexico; Freeman Dyson on the world of science; Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer; Michael Arlen on the making of a single thirty-second television commercial; and William Maxwell’s novella So Long, See You Tomorrow — among many other important, enduring works. There is no question in my mind about his brilliance. His childlike curiosity about the whole world — paradoxically born, I believe, of his well-documented agoraphobia — often found splendid expression in the magazine’s contents. At his editorial best, he read and asked questions and made suggestions like a very smart child but with the sophistication and intelligence of a fine inquiring adult mind. He was probably right about the Newspaper Guild’s not being right for the New Yorker. But I think he could have stopped the movement before it started by living up to the salary principles he espoused retroactively — before the unionizing cow ever even thought of leaving her barn.

Shortly after the formation of the Employees Committee, Shawn paid a visit to Katherine Bouton, to complain about the whole notion of such a body, even though his letter had said he was “happy” about it. Bouton tried to reconcile Shawn to it once again. He seemed soothed when he got up to leave, but in the doorway he turned to her and said, “I still feel betrayed.” Thereupon Bouton burst into tears — she, like the rest of us, had been under great stress for weeks. Shawn went back into her office and put his arm around her and said, “I didn’t mean to upset you, Kathy. I’m so sorry, Kathy — I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Then he drew back with a stricken look on his face and said, “It is all right if I call you Kathy, isn’t it, Miss Bouton?”

By the way, I had some disagreement with Bouton concerning the prospects of victory in a union election and the potential effectiveness of an Employees Committee. I was the only editor at the magazine who signed a union card, but that may have had less to do with courage or even conviction than with my family history. Those arguments didn’t stop us from forming a union of our own; we got married a few years later.

  1. This is a hint of Shawn’s choler, and it conflicts with the collegiality of the rest of the letter. It means, “Some people may think that we’re going to give substantial raises out of fear of the union and that for this reason we shouldn’t give them, but we’ll go ahead and give the raises anyway.” 

More from Issue 21

Issue 21 Throwback

One’s leisure time feels like work that one doesn’t have time for.

Issue 21 Throwback

Unionization had been rare in the industry because it cultivated “an aura of gentility which leads to self-deception.”

Issue 21 Throwback

Some of the most educated and skilled people in our society are among the most exploited workers.

Issue 21 Throwback

It was a climate of fear for a bunch of delicate orchids.

Issue 21 Throwback

The work seemed to slide into Friday, while the money stopped on Thursday.

Issue 21 Throwback

Was the magazine exploiting everyone? It sure felt like it.

Issue 21 Throwback
The Look
Issue 21 Throwback
Destiny, USA
Issue 21 Throwback
The Raw and the Rawer
Issue 21 Throwback
The Next Next Level
Issue 21 Throwback

Let’s face it: there’s nothing cool about someone else’s sentimentality.

Issue 21 Throwback

“There are also men in the world,” Lydia Davis reminds us. As if we could forget.

Issue 21 Throwback

Sci-Fi offers the best example of that distinctively 21st-century blend of affect: eagerness and wistfulness. YOLO + FOMO.

Issue 21 Throwback

I frequently say “Check your privilege” as a polite proxy for “Shut your fucking racist mouth.”