On Thursday, unionized workers at HarperCollins went on an indefinite strike to protest management’s refusal to accept a fair contract. This indefinite strike comes a few months after a one-day strike that the workers organized last July. Employees of one of the world’s biggest publishing houses have been without a contract since April and have also filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The workers, who are represented by United Auto Workers Local 2110, are demanding that their contract include a living wage that takes into account inflation and union security provisions. UAW 2110 represents approximately 250 HarperCollins employees.
I spoke to a HarperCollins worker on the picket line. “Management made no move toward a contract, and they dismissed all of our proposals as unrealistic,” she told me. “We’re not talking huge sums of money here. We are talking about a living wage.
I work in publishing and am a member of UAW 2110, and after working at several non-union publishing houses, I have come to see how essential organized labor is to an industry like publishing. A refrain on the HarperCollins picket line is “Passion doesn’t pay the rent!”
HarperCollins management says workers at the company are paid fair and competitive wages, citing a recent 25% increase in entry salaries. This increase took effect on January 18, 2021, following negotiations with the union on January 15, the previous Friday. What the company’s claim hides, however, is that wages have gone from $36,000 to $45,000, which is not a fair or viable wage for full-time workers, especially with inflation and the rapidly rising cost of living. According to the same HarperCollins worker, management claims that this two-year wage increase is adequate and demonstrates the goodwill of the company, since management voted it “without union concessions”. Publishing workers are mostly forced to live in hugely expensive cities like New York and London – part of how the industry sustains itself thanks to its image of glamorous cosmopolitan scholarship – and companies like HarperCollins , who have operated remotely throughout the pandemic, are now forcing workers to return to their offices.
In most publishing houses – especially non-union ones – the hours are long, the workload is huge and the wages are low; management dangles the dubious promise of career advancement in front of junior staff in order to squeeze more work out of them. This exploitation takes place by draining the “passion for books” of the workers. The same love and concern for making books and supporting authors that publishers bring to their work is used against them, to make their working conditions worse. If anyone expresses dissatisfaction with these terms, she is reprimanded for introducing vulgar material concerns into something as exalted as the making and selling of books – and reminded that there are a million recent college graduates asking for a job in a publishing house.
Olga Brudastova, president of UAW 2110, said Weekly editors“At the end of last week, the company let us know by email that they were not interested in scheduling any further trading sessions and that they were rejecting our latest proposal. We now learn that management is asking non-union employees to avoid any mention of the strike and plans to ignore out-of-office messages from our members that mention it.
In a leaked memo written to HarperCollins staff by a senior vice president of ‘HarperCollins Corporate Communications’, unionized employees are routinely referred to as ‘United Auto Workers’ in a union busting tactic called ‘third party’ – dumping real employees company as external agents, since they are represented by a trade union. The email states that “HarperCollins has plans in place to ensure operations continue uninterrupted during a potential strike.”
But it would appear that the workers have the backing of the publishing world as a whole and are hoping for a fair contract. “The response from the community has been really positive,” this worker told me. “The authors have written to the company and posted on social media. They know what it takes to make a good book. And some agents have even won submissions…. There’s a lot of attention on us now from It’s the most extreme thing we can do, but it’s about all of us getting what we deserve.
In October, after workers filed unfair labor practice complaints over management’s refusal to respond to a bargaining unit request for information during negotiations, HarperCollins fired an unknown number of workers, including six union members. HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch-founded parent company News Corp, posted record profits in the fiscal year ending June 2022. Sales were up 10% from fiscal 2021, up at $2.2 billion. Even so, News Corp cites inflation and supply chain costs for the layoffs and modest wage increases — overlooking the impact of inflation on underpaid workers who made these record profits possible.
HarperCollins workers are asking the community to support the strike in several ways, including donating to the strike fund and wrote to [email protected] to express its solidarity with the strikers. If you’re an author, freelancer, book reviewer, bookstagrammer or agent, the workers are asking you not to “cross the picket line” – to hold your submissions to any HarperCollins publisher until that a fair contract is concluded; don’t take HarperCollins contracts during the strike (but don’t give up contracts either); and keep your reviews, presentations, nominations, or other coverage or content until the workers get a fair contract. The publishing industry relies on its incredibly talented, bright, hardworking, and thoughtful workers to create the books that bring us so much joy. It’s time they got their due.