The Creative Class Gets Organized

The staff of The New Yorker—the people behind the scenes: editors, fact checkers, social media strategists, designers—are unionizing. They’ve even got a logo: Eustace Tilly with his fist raised. If you’re a loyal reader of the magazine, as I am, you should support the union in any way you can. Every week, they bring us our happiness; we should give them some back. They’re asking for letters of solidarity; email them at

If you look at their demands, they read like a tableaux of grievances from today’s economy: no job security, vast wage disparities, no overtime pay, a lot of subcontracting, and so on.

The creative class used to see itself and its concerns as outside the economy. Not anymore.

A few years back, I read Ved Mehta’s memoirs of his years at The New Yorker under editor William Shawn. Shawn helped Mehta find his first apartment: he actually scouted out a bunch of places with a real estate broker and wrote Mehta letters or called him about what he had seen. Shawn got Mehta set up with a meal service. The money was flowing. Again, not anymore.

The sea change isn’t just economic; it’s also cultural.

When we first started organizing graduate employees at Yale in the early 1990s, we got a lot of hostility. And nowhere more so than from the creative class. People in the elite media really disliked us. Many of them had left grad school or gone to fancy colleges, and we may have reminded them of the people they disliked when they were undergrads. (Truth be told: sometimes we reminded me of the people I disliked when I was an undergrad.) In any event, they saw us as pampered whiners, radical wannabees, Sandalistas in seminars. It was untrue and unfair. It didn’t matter. Liberals have their identity politics, too.

As some of you know, my union experience didn’t end happily. I lost three out of four of my dissertation advisers. And two of them wound up writing me blacklisting letters. After that, I wrote a mini-memoir-ish essay about the whole experience. I had great ambitions to be a personal/political essayist; this was my first stab at the genre. Part of my dissertation had been on McCarthyism and the blacklist, so I wove that into my essay: the experience of writing a dissertation that I wound up living a version of in real life.

I shopped it around to The New Yorker. I even called a top editor there after they turned it down. He answered the phone. That’s how things rolled back then. It was an awkward conversation.

I sent the essay to another top magazine. An editor there read and rejected it. I can’t remember if we spoke on the phone or corresponded by mail, but I remember his objection clearly. He didn’t like my comparison between my being blacklisted and McCarthyism. McCarthyism, he said, was about people going to jail; my essay was about people losing jobs and careers (which had happened to one of my fellow unionists, a student of the conservative classicist Donald Kagan).

The editor, of course, was wrong about that. Relatively few people went to jail under McCarthyism. Thousands upon thousands, however, lost their jobs and careers. That’s what McCarthyism was: political repression via employment. It didn’t matter. He knew what he knew.

Fifteen years later, there was a union drive at the magazine where this editor worked. He led it. He was fired.

My piece wasn’t great; it should have been rejected. I was an amateur, and it needed work. But I can’t help feeling that some part of the disconnect back then—the easy ignorance and confident incuriosity that so often pass in the media for common sense—had to do with where the creative class was in the 1990s: liberal on everything but unions.

Again, not anymore.


  1. mark June 6, 2018 at 11:21 am | #

    “In electoral terms, age seems to be the new dividing line in British politics. The starkest way to show this is to note that, amongst first time voters (those aged 18 and 19), Labour was forty seven percentage points ahead. Amongst those aged over 70, the Conservatives had a lead of fifty percentage points. In fact, for every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around nine points and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by nine points. The tipping point, that is the age at which a voter is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour, is now 47 – up from 34 at the start of the campaign.”

    (June 13, 2017, 4:56 p.m. Chris Curtis How Britain voted at the 2017 general election)

  2. mark June 6, 2018 at 11:21 am | #

    “Figures from the Trades Union Congress provided to the BBC reveal membership levels among the under-30s have fallen from 20.1% in 2001 to 15.7% in 2017. In the private sector, which employs more than 80% of 21 to 30-year-olds, the figure fell from 12.6% to to 9%. It comes despite the pay gap between younger and older workers rising by more than half in the past 20 years. Younger people are also much more concerned about “insecure work” and their financial position.”

    (Under-30s turn away from unions despite wage stagnation, Kamal Ahmed, BBC, 4 June 2018)

  3. Larry Houghteling June 6, 2018 at 11:25 am | #

    Brilliant! Too true!

    And I love your line about “the easy ignorance and confident incuriosity that so often pass in the media for common sense.” I was a reporter for a big city California paper in ’68 (50 years ago – yikes!). My friends envied me for my “really interesting job,” and it did have its moments. But far too much of being a newspaper reporter consisted, I perceived, in pretending (often unaware that one WAS pretending) to know things one really didn’t know. It drove me nuts, this being a kind of fake expert-in-all-things. One of the things I like most about Josh Marshall’s essays at TPM is how much of what he writes consists of “Okay, now here’s what I DON’T know.”

    You know what they say, though, Boss: Humility is a great thing, but it is not profitable unless kept strictly under control.

  4. Dene Karaus June 6, 2018 at 9:39 pm | #

    As a retired airline pilot where all of us were unionized (it’s an airline life necessity I won’t go into here) I was amazed as I observed the Yale unionization problem (the lack of support.) A few years ago I attended an organizing meeting in Virginia for the Occupy movement only to face huge anti-union bias from the local so-called leadership (these people were as phony as a three-dollar bill.) It’s time for all liberals and progressives to get behind unionization everywhere and every time it’s attempted. Unionization is a very virtuous pursuit.

    • Jason June 10, 2018 at 11:22 pm | #

      Unions, for me, are like religion and exercise- I know there are supposed to be benefits in theory, but whenever I encounter them in the wild they’re horrifying. I’ve belonged to two (one a local of the NEA, the other AFT), and I’ve dealt with union carpenters, electricians, teamsters, and other professions in various capacities. In every case they’ve been openly corrupt, racist, sexist, and (weirdly) classist- nobody hates the working poor like a union carpenter. Our local police union endorsed Trump, and the firefighters declined to endorse anyone. The local steelworkers are run by a dynasty for its own benefit. The electricians have an association with the NRA. Etc.

      My state is voting on right to work this year, and I’m so torn I may just skip that line. I can’t reconcile the theoretical benefits with the corruption and reactionist politics I see in reality.

  5. Chris Morlock June 7, 2018 at 5:39 am | #

    There is no reason not to unionize the entire creative field. It cannot be outsourced. The New Yorker cannot simply close up shop in New York and relocate to take advantage of cheap labor. Most of the industry I work in, the Industrial Design field, similarly could be unionized because the vast concentration of talent is local not global. We even have a pre-made structure called the IDSA, or Industrial Design Society of America which is a network of almost all top talent. When I brought this up with higher ups in the past it was treated as if I just asked the laws of gravity to be repealed.

    I have always made the case that in the Tech industry, the vast majority of coders on the creative side could unionize. I have a friend that works at Salesforce here in SF who is a huge union supporter and progressive. I joke with him why the Salesforce workforce dosen’t unionize- we are supposedly in the most progressive city in America and Salesforce’s reputation comes from it’s local identity in part. Never got a good reason a Union can’t happen.

    “Working class” and “Union” have become the real politically incorrect terms. If you want to get thrown out on the street faster you can’t come up with worse “trigger words”. It’s the most offensive thing imaginable.

  6. Bob Kircher June 7, 2018 at 10:32 pm | #

    Some seem to have forgotten that the capitalist marketplace consists of both sides…capital and labor.., in doing business for the people. I recall Carl Levin years ago arguing until he was hoarse that the CAFTA agreement disappeared “labor” from the equation regulating “fair play”. Easily he could have been talking today about the same in the USA, Britain and elsewhere. Without fair-minded champions for both sides arguing in a atmosphere of comity, the situation becomes woefully lopsided and dreadfully unfair.

  7. Roquentin June 8, 2018 at 2:54 pm | #

    As someone who worked for the parent company, albeit briefly, I have odd feelings about this. While I support their demands, the attempt to unionize is good, all that sort of thing, I also know that the company has been losing money for quite a while. Print media is in bad shape, and the brands, especially those involved on the print side, are fighting over an ever shrinking slice of the pie. That’s when arguments like this finally come to a head….a company on the downgrade, people at the top still wanting their oversized cut, squeezing the people below ever harder just to get it.

    I mean, I know what they’re talking about. I freelanced (in their online video studio and distribution) and was unceremoniously kicked to the curb six months in. It is almost exclusively responsible for me leaving New York City. I try not to be bitter about it, but it inspires a kind of anger and contempt in me that almost defies words. When I moved to NYC a decade prior to that, I dreamed so long of working in publishing. To get there, even in that capacity, and find it was nothing like I thought it’d be, then to have it blow up in my face, it was almost too much to take. Just go read the reviews on Glassdoor for Conde Nast to get a feel for what working there is actually like. I’m sure plenty of that spilled over in to my endless disdain for a certain flavor of centrist liberalism.

    You can only stare at “woke” politics sandwiched between ads for $1,000 clothing items, luxurious vacations, jewelry, all manner of things like that before it all seems like a cruel joke. I swear I read an article once about how their magazines generally had the highest average incomes of readers of any in circulation. Sitting in that environment in late 2016, Donald Trump started to make a lot more sense. It was about as bleak as it gets. No wonder I didn’t make any sense in that environment.

    • Chris Morlock June 10, 2018 at 11:38 pm | #

      The other dimension to look at it in is the problem of Unions being forced to act differently in a predominately market based economy. They don’t act very well- almost like country clubs for senior members and managers of their investment portfolios. I have been in 2 unions in my life and the value proposition they gave to their rank and file as opposed to their seniority was always a problem. The structure within the union of rank and file and the leadership and seniority also mirrored itself in their political breakdown- progressives at the bottom and centrist Liberals at the top.

      I have a good friend in the California Faculty Association whose entire job is to mediate disputes between upper management that wants to push an agenda of full time members over their part time membership and the benefits that go between them. Education should be a model for the creative industry- it can’t be outsourced, but it has its fair share of dysfunctional issues.

      Even in an shrinking industry and even among various factions within the Unions being spurred on by market based inequalities the Union is still the way to go. The real step ahead and the ultimate form of progress is to make sure that the labor of a company is democratically represented in who gets to vote for the board of directors of a company. That simple law present in most European nations gives labor enough power to make decisions about where the company is going. Plenty of empirical economic data to suggest it helps companies make a profit too.

      • Roquentin June 21, 2018 at 9:56 am | #

        I agree, actually. I shouldn’t let personal grievances cloud my vision on this one. Maybe someone else at the company can avoid my fate of freelancing and being thrown to the wolves.

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