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The HarperCollins Strike Approaches 50 Days: ‘$45K Is Just Not Enough to Live on in NYC’

“We believe that this is our only opportunity to make real change in this industry," union chair Laura Harshberger told Hell Gate.

(Courtesy of the Harper Collins union)

When Wednesday arrives, 200-odd members of the HarperCollins union will have been on strike for 50 days, the latest action in an industry that has in recent years seen workers call for (and sometimes win) higher pay, amidst a broader push for racial equity within publishing.

The demands of the HarperCollins union, part of Local 2110 of the UAW, are simple: higher pay for entry-level employees, a greater commitment to diversifying its workforce, and an end to the union's status as an open shop, which currently bars the union from collecting dues from all employees who are eligible to join. HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, is the only one of the "Big Five" publishers whose workers are represented by a union, some form of which has been in place since the 1970s. (Some things never change: In 1977, the last time the union went on strike, workers held signs reading, "Editors can't eat prestige.") 

Unlike the union's strikes in the '70s, which ended after a few weeks, management today seems determined to wait out the striking workers. Recently, we spoke with Laura Harshberger, the union chair and a senior production editor with HarperCollins's children’s books division, on what the union wants, how the strike has impacted HarperCollins, and why the stakes of this strike are much bigger than just pay issues at the company. As Harshberger put it, "We believe that this is our only opportunity to make real change in this industry."

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Hell Gate: What's been happening recently? Are there any updates on negotiations with HarperCollins management?

Laura Harshberger: We don't have an update on negotiations. We have not heard from management regarding bargaining since before the strike started in November. So no new bargaining sessions and no update on negotiations. We have not had a single bargaining session since the strike started.

Right before the strike, and our last bargaining session, we presented new contract proposals that we saw as a comprehensive path toward reaching a settlement, avoiding the strike. And management walked away from that meeting. They left to go on break, and then they never came back. And they emailed us and rejected our proposal, and did not indicate a willingness to continue bargaining. 

So we are waiting on them. 

What was in the proposal that the union put on the table?

The main tenets of this contract have been around salaries and wages, union security, and then putting language around diversity protections into the contract. Our proposals around wages included establishing an entry-level salary of $50,000 in the first year of the contract; that would be up from the current salary of $45,000. 

And management's proposal, where they were at, was $46,500. So we're at a $4,000 gap between us. Two years ago, they raised the entry-level salary to $45,000, from what it had been previously, which was only $38,000, which is a pretty big jump. But when they did that, they didn't do an equally meaningful jump to the other job title levels. So we want to try to spread the levels out a little bit, so that experience is being valued fairly. 

And the next thing is union security. Currently, HarperCollins is an open union shop, which means that when you take a job covered by the union contract, you do not automatically become a member of the union and you do not pay dues unless you opt into union membership. We would like to establish what's known as an agency shop, which is essentially, when you take a job in the bargaining unit, you are given a window of time by which you will choose whether you want to be a union member, or you don't want to be a union member. It still provides for choice, but you would pay agency fees to the union, which would be never more than the amount that dues is. And what it does is it collectively shares the cost of collective bargaining equally among all the people who benefit from having a union contract. 

And right now, we have a membership rate of over 85 percent. This is something that people already opt into and feel really strongly about. [Moving to an agency shop] would be a fair structure for us, making this change doesn't cost the company any money. But from their perspective, we believe that they see it as ceding too much power to the union. 

The only reason we have an 85 percent membership rate is because we have a really organized group of individuals who come together at Harper right now. But everybody moves on eventually, and advances in their career, and we want to secure the future of our union for future generations of Harper employees.

In New York City, it's pretty rare to have that kind of open shop union contract.

Yeah, it's extremely rare. We've talked and heard from a lot of politicians who believe that this kind of union shop should be illegal. This happened to our union in the 1980s, at a time when unions were being busted in the city. And we just want to switch it back, we want to go back to the previous way it was, and the way that pretty much all other private sector unions work. It's really unusual. 

I read the open letter where the CEO Brian Murray used very overt "right to work" language. What was your response to that when you saw it?

It made us angry. It was also funny to us, because he referred to dues as a substantial amount of money, which was funny to all of us, because dues is 1.6 percent of our pay. It's less than we pay for just about anything else, in terms of like, taxes, Social Security, the amount that it costs to ride the subway every month. It's a really small amount that for our lowest-paid workers pretty much comes out to like one pizza a month. 

And it's a choice that we make, and it's a choice that we're willing to give people. If people politically don't want to be in a union, they don't have to become a member. They don't have to participate in union activities, but you benefit from the protections of the contract. So you should contribute to the cost of maintaining that contract. 

It was surprising to see just how conservative his language was on right to work, because New York is not a right to work state. This is a union town, this is a union-friendly state. We're lucky to be in New York in a lot of ways. But I think that's his personal opinion on it. And it's a shame, because his personal stance on this strike is really what is damaging HarperCollins's reputation in the industry, with authors and agents and industry professionals.

It's interesting, because the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones [which are also owned by News Corp], their newsrooms have union structures that are not the same as ours. So it's not a News Corp policy to have an open shop union. In fact, if there was a News Corp policy, we would have an agency shop because that's what the other unions in News Corp have. 

My understanding thus far is that he has been trying to treat this as if it's a minor thing. And it's creating a real mess for the employees that work for Harper on the inside, HarperCollins authors, and agents that are trying to work with Harper. 

His strategy has been to say publicly that business, as usual, is continuing. And that books aren't being affected. But we know that that's not true. There was a title change memo this week that somebody leaked to us, that indicated that more than 50 titles are moving their sale date, in the next season. And that's because the work is just not getting done.

What are some of the other concrete impacts that the strike and management's refusal to bargain with y'all has had on the company itself? 

So one of the big things that has been happening is that we had more than 200 agents sign a letter indicating that they're going to withhold submissions from HarperCollins until the strike is over. And that's something that's starting to really be noticed and felt. We've been hearing that at the acquisitions meetings, there's not a lot of new projects coming in, it's mostly just options for contracts that are already in place. 

As far as books currently in the publishing process, our understanding is that projects are kind of being grouped into A or B, where it's like, on A, we'll try to do as much as we can, and B, we're going to do the bare minimum in terms of shepherding it through copy editing and proofreading. We believe that a lot of corners are being cut there. Because most of the production editors across all the imprints are on strike, and those are the people that would be managing the quality assurance of text. 

And then, in terms of marketing and publicity, there's a lot of books where the people who were supposed to be leading the campaigns are on the picket line. So it's other people inside who are trying to pick up something that's in process, and shepherd the book into the world. But our understanding is that anybody who isn't on strike is extremely overworked, because of the pressure on them from executives to pretend that this isn’t happening. 

Because of all the designers on strike as well, a lot of marketing projects that would have required design elements were being canceled at the end of last year, because it's just like, there's not anybody to execute this work.

We heard a really funny story in December about a very high-level editor, trying to email somebody, an agent, and do something that normally their assistant would do that involved a PDF attachment, and it took like three or four tries to simply email a PDF. 

Back to some of the union's demands, it might seem self-evident why higher wages are so important. Can you talk a little bit about what the low wages mean, for both current employees and who is able to get a job in publishing? 

So publishing as an industry has always been a place that had an apprenticeship mindset, and the idea that you're not going to make enough money to live in the early years of your career, but if you stick it out, and work your way up, you'll be fine. And the problem with that is that at the lower level, you truly do not make enough money to live on in New York City. A lot of our members work second jobs, a lot of people work at bookstores on the weekends, or they rely on family support. And the problem with that is that if you are only making your jobs open to people who have privilege, you're only able to recruit from a certain demographic of people. 

And Harpers has been speaking very publicly about valuing diversity, and wanting to have a diverse and inclusive workforce. There's been so much attention in the literary world on making sure that marginalized voices are being published and promoted. And if you want to do that, you need to have a really robustly diverse group of people working on making that happen. From our experience, the best way to ensure that HarperCollins is able to recruit and retain a talented, diverse workforce would be to pay everybody a living wage from the beginning. Because the current system isn't fair. And $45,000 is just not enough to live on in New York City. 

Do you think the work that y'all are doing at the union has broader implications for the other big publishing houses?

I hope so. We definitely feel like we have a lot of support and attention on us, because we are the only one unionized of the big trade publishers. I think that the current workers of HarperCollins really feel that we've been given a gift by having this union, because we didn't have to organize the shop from scratch. But I think in the same way, it also places a lot of pressure on us, because I can imagine that management feels pressure to not make changes that would set a new standard in the industry. 

What I always come back to is this idea of collusion between the Big Five publishers. There's not a publisher that has made a decision to really jump out that far ahead than any of the others. And I think it's because the entire system is built on this structure where lower-level people are underpaid.

We believe that this is our only opportunity to make real change in this industry, this industry that we care about deeply, that we think is really important, valuable work, and that we want to be able to do for the rest of our working lives. 

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