What You Don't Know About the HarperCollins Strike
This week’s episode of WORK APPROPRIATE is for anyone who is exhausted with their workplace treating their identity — their simple act of being who they are — as a problem, featuring practical, actionable (legal and emotional!) advice from Morgan Givens. Follow the magic link to listen on your app of choice.
We’re also looking for work questions and quandaries related to AMBITION (too much? not enough?) and any truly WTF questions (a recent example: what do I do about the women in my office who keep telling me I should have a baby). To submit your quandary, follow the link to the Google Doc (scroll down to find it!)
Culture Study is a pro-union pro-labor household — and when one of the 250 members of the Harper Collins union, which has been on strike since November 10th messaged me to see if I’d be willing to share some of the details of the strike with readers, my answer was an immediate yes. Below, I talk with one of the union leaders, associate editor Rachel Kambury, about why this strike matters so much — and the radical, industry-shifting potential of their relatively small but massively important demands.
Even more importantly: she has specific ways for how you can actually back-up a belief that publishing should be more diverse, and that the people who produce books shouldn’t have to come from family money to make ends meet. Even if you think you know what they’re striking over, and why solidarity matters — this interview will, to be slightly corny, get you fired up. And if you’re too busy to read for whatever reason, the TL;DR is quite simple: here’s how you make this strike survivable for those who’ve now been out of work for nearly two months.
For people who are unfamiliar or only slightly familiar with the HarperCollins Union and the strike, can you set the table?
The three demands we’re making of management are on the one hand incredibly straightforward and, at least in our minds on the picket line, entirely doable. Namely, 1) A $50,000 salary floor; 2) contractual language around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that ensures that regardless of state or national law, HarperCollins employees are guaranteed a workplace that reflects the world we live in; and 3) changes to our shop structure, namely making the HarperCollins union a “closed shop,” which will ensure better protections for our most vulnerable employees, and a better workplace for all.
These three points are what’s left of the original six pages of proposals our union negotiating committee shared with HarperCollins management last December. We’re striking over these points precisely because they inform and impact everything in our industry: Retention, inclusivity, work/life balance, employee health, the quality of the books themselves and the work that goes into them.
Underpaid employees can’t focus on work if they’re anxious about affording rent and bills and food. (For context, my first publishing paycheck in July 2016 was $980.) Underrepresented employees who experience daily microaggressions can’t function if their nervous systems are constantly going haywire. These pain points result in an absurd amount of turnover, with most employees—people who love books, who enjoy the work, and who want to stay—leaving within their first five years. The cost of this turnover is both financial and personal. Millions of dollars a year are wasted replacing dedicated employees, while authors and their books are handed off to strangers with no guarantee that the end product (or the overall experience) will be anything like what author and their original publishing team envisioned.
That kind of hurt doesn’t leave an author quickly, and some never publish again as a result. I’ve worked with authors who have had 3-4 different editors on a single book. I’ve said it elsewhere, but it always bears repeating: this is entirely antithetical to publishing’s ethos of “author care.” Every author trusts a publisher with their work, and that trust is being broken every day—not just by HarperCollins every day they let the strike continue, but by every Big 5 publisher who has been told what needs fixing in this industry and refuses to lift a finger.
These cycles repeat themselves year over year. More employees leave and fewer and fewer are replaced; the lists continue to grow but the pay remains stagnant. Publishers are being run by skeleton crews for cheap while executives and overseas shareholders pocket the profits of our labor. This is true across the industry, but we’re the ones with a union, which means we have the power to say (and do) something about the situation.
The strike is about advocating for better working conditions for HarperCollins employees in particular — but there are very real ramifications for the industry at large. Can you talk more about the ripple effects of reaching this agreement, particularly as it applies to diversity when it comes to employees AND when it comes to what actually gets published?
This is the crux of everything we’re fighting for. Really. As I’ve spoken to people both in our industry and out of it, one thing has become abundantly clear: the people who work in this industry absolutely inform what gets published, and who reads the books we put out. And I want to stress that this equation does not begin with the editor—it begins with the author, who (in most cases) was a reader themselves first. Without representation, how can marginalized authors feel confident that their work will be considered, let alone published? And if they do manage to get a book deal, who’s to say their publishing experience will be a good one? This industry is overwhelmingly composed of white people, with a majority of wealth consolidated at the top, and the resulting microaggressions (and sometimes outright bigotry) do not stop at the employee level.
Those with the financial and institutional power to decide what gets published, or promoted, or publicized, are deciding what the rest of us consume with our time and money and attention. This informs everything, from what we read to how we vote.
There are more books being published today than at any other point in human history. The amount of information we encounter daily both in print and online is astronomical. And all the while, profits skyrocket, while the people who do all that work struggle to meet their most basic, human needs.
The fact that most of the people who run these billion-dollar media companies are and have been white men is not a coincidence. There is more diversity at the entry level now than there’s ever been, but the company’s refusal to address issues with retention means that the road ends for most of those employees before they can achieve any kind of meaningful career growth. Almost half of America’s population is non-white, but you wouldn’t know that looking at a Big 5 masthead. While things have improved since this industry’s early days, the fact that the HarperCollins union has been on strike for two months as of this writing speaks to how much further we still have to go.
But the good news is, we work in an industry that is driven by relationships. All of us in the union have friends, mentors, mentees, and former and future colleagues across publishing who are watching our efforts and rooting for our success, not only for our sakes’, but because our success means that unionization across the Big 5 publishing houses — which will in turn result in higher salaries, stronger worker protections, and better benefits — is more than a possibility, but an inevitability.
A lot of people (including myself, at first!) don’t know that the HarperCollins union is quite old and storied — and has successfully gone on strike before. Given the recent rise in unionization drives at various publications (and within other ‘passion job’ industries) the confusion/lack of knowledge isn’t surprising, but it also leads people to suggest that, well, you’re new at this. What are the benefits of being a part of a union with a lot of history, particularly when it comes to this strike? And what’s been harder?
I think the benefits of being in a union, new or old, far outweigh the drawbacks (of which there are few to none). I still don’t make enough money to make ends meet, but I also don’t miss the $30 in union dues that comes out of every paycheck. That’s how important I think being in a union is. Not just when it comes to taking collective action against capitalist goliaths like Rupert Murdoch (who owns NewsCorp, which owns HarperCollins), but on a deeply human level, as well. I’ve made so many friends on strike, with people I’d never have met otherwise. Community is the antidote to miserliness, among other societal ills, and being part of this one has improved my life immeasurably, and in a very short amount of time. (Also, it’s deeply ironic for a CEO to tell people that union dues are too expensive, a roundabout way of admitting he knows $45,000 a year in 2023 is an unlivable salary.)
The fact that the HarperCollins union in particular has this deep history as one of the only unions in traditional publishing is both amazing and cause for some despair, because when we see a flier from 1986 calling for the making the same demands we are now, it’s hard not to feel disappointment. How has so much time passed and so little has changed? But then we consider the fact that we are now the longest strike in HarperCollins history, and not because we don’t want to work, but because HarperCollins won’t meet us at the bargaining table. Unions do what they can with the people they have at the time; it just so happens that the HarperCollins union is bigger, louder, and stronger than it’s ever been in its history.
(The fact that they call us auto workers [because of our affiliation with UAW] is an old-school union busting technique, and a laughable one at that. We joke on the line about showing up one day covered in gear grease wearing overalls and carrying wrenches to really play up the hilarity of their misinformation attempts. You want an auto worker? I’ll show up to the picket line dressed like Rosie the Riveter.)
To be clear, this union is made up entirely of HarperCollins employees who want better pay and a healthier working environment not only for ourselves, but for the generations after us. Rather than pull up the ladder, we want to keep sending it back down so it reaches more people and takes them higher, faster. Everyone is an individual, yes, but the things that impact us individually— low pay, overwork, abuse — can snowball until everyone is affected. I imagine the first women hired into publishing got paid a pittance to work for the established men above them, and thus a norm was born that continues to this day. Why? Because it made a handful of individuals incredibly wealthy, and in the game of capitalism, that’s the ultimate goal.
Unions like ours are cycle breakers in that respect, which is why CEOs like Brian Murray are so afraid of us. They told themselves and their employees “This is the way it’s always been” because that was what they knew, and what worked for them, for decades. Now, we’re the ones standing up to say, “It’s time to change.”
You’ve had hundreds of authors come out in support of your cause — how has the visibility helped? Why does it matter?
Any employee will tell you that while there are plenty of less-than-pleasant people in book publishing, the good ones make everything worthwhile. This is especially true of authors. Since the strike began, I’ve received notes of support from authors both past and present and have cried every time. Seeing HarperCollins authors like Maureen Johnson and Maris Kreizman deliver snacks to the picket line, or tweets from Neil Gaiman and Meg Cabot, it makes our efforts feel worthwhile. And after being made to feel worthless by company leadership for so long, it’s these gestures of love, friendship, and solidarity that remind us why we do this work and why we’re fighting to make this industry better for everyone.
Morale is also a huge factor here. Without it, people start to wonder why they’re out in the freezing cold walking in circles when they could be inside working. Our relationships with our authors are the reason why we’re out here, and precisely why their support means so much to all of us on the picket line—we don’t have jobs without them. We know how hard people work on their books because we’re the ones shepherding each one through the process of publication, from acquisition to getting finished copies on the shelves.
We also see firsthand how badly authors are being hurt by low advances and payout structures that stretch out over 2-4 years; we love seeing conversations like #PublishingPaidMe play out online precisely because it makes our bosses (and their bosses) nervous. Much like the three-martini lunch, whisper networks for talking about salaries and/or advances will be a bygone as soon as we realize that collectively, we have so much more power than the people at the top would have us believe. And just as publishing employees continue to speak up about working conditions in the industry, the more individual authors share on public channels, the stronger we are as a whole.
What do you find that people misunderstand about this strike and your demands? (Particularly interested here in people who are like, yes, we need all these things to change, but a union/a strike isn’t the right way to do it.)
To me, people who begrudge unions for fighting the hard fight are indecipherable from those who care more about billionaires than about their fellow working class neighbors. Others have played by the book for years, and while their efforts brought about small, incremental (and necessary) changes, “one step forward, two steps back” isn’t a long-term solution to publishing’s fundamental problems around retention, diversity, pay, and inclusion. We tried speaking softly, asking for what we need to be better employees and happier and healthier human beings, but that didn’t work, so now we’re using the big stick.
What’s been the hardest — emotionally, psychologically, physically — about maintaining the strike this long?
Striking is hard. I spent the back half of December 2022 bedridden with a strained back followed by a brutal cold. Others have been experiencing bouts of severe depression and anxiety, wondering what they’re risking by being out on the picket line this long. We cry on each other’s shoulders and hug whenever we can. Long-term strikes are marathons, and the support and enthusiasm of friends, family, and those fearless colleagues who wear our strike pins and shirts into the office are what keep us going. Morale is half the battle, and unfortunately for HarperCollins management and Rupert Murdoch over at NewsCorp, we have it in abundance.
But as wars of attrition go, this is a brutal one. It’s bewildering and infuriating being out in the cold, away from our work—foregoing not just our paychecks, but the small amounts that some of us are able to set aside for things such as our health savings or retirement accounts. Rejection is a part of publishing, naturally, but this is beyond the pale. And while we freeze outside with our picket signs and cowbells, we are acutely aware that the books we’re supposed to be working on are floundering. We talk constantly about work, our authors, whether anything is getting done without us, and why on earth HarperCollins is choosing to let the strike continue this long. We, the unionized HarperCollins employees are the ones waiting for them at the bargaining table, after all.
A whole lot of authors, editors, agents, writers, and readers read this newsletter. What are specific actions they can take to show solidarity?
Talk to the readers in your life who may not know what all goes into making a book and emphasize the importance of them in our society, and why having a strong, well-paid, diverse publishing workforce is an absolute necessity for the sake of said society as well as the books themselves.
I’ll also continue to press the importance of not crossing the picket line, virtually or in person. As has been abundantly clear to me for years now, the publishing industry doesn’t care about its people so much as it cares about its bottom line (which is what happens when art becomes beholden to shareholders). If profit is their endgame, we have to play it their way: withhold submissions, refuse freelance work, or refrain from submitting that finished manuscript your editor is waiting on. All of these elements feed into HarperCollins’ profits, and without them those profits start to shrink. Publishing thrives on prestige but it runs on revenue, and sometimes you really do have to hit them where it hurts.
Note: If you’re a HarperCollins employee being forced to return to the office, I understand the dilemma. You’ve supported us from the jump but Brian Murray decided to punish the union by making you cross the picket line. This is a deliberate attempt to demoralize us. Simply come by our table outside 195 Broadway on any given day and we’ll give you a button you can wear into the office. (I’m not saying a HarperCollins union pin is the Sally Rooney bucket hat of Winter ’23, but I’m not not saying that, either.)
And definitely do not underestimate the impact a simple DM, coffee, email, or $10 venmo can have. We need to know that we are loved and supported, both collectively and individually.
And apart from these actions of solidarity, how can they offer material support to the cause?
Donate to our strike fund. HarperCollins management is determined to “starve us out.” Don’t let them. And if you happen to be passing through Manhattan’s financial district, come by our picket line and walk with us—we’ll be out here, making all kinds of good trouble.