The first publishing strike

Marco Dente, Venus removing a thorn from her left foot while seated on a cloth next to trees, a hare lower right. c. 1515, engraving. 10 7/16 × 6 7/8”. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

In June 1934, the workers of the Macaulay Company, a publishing house, attempted to join a white-collar trade union, the Office Workers Union. One of the workers was fired, and they subsequently went on strike. This was the first strike in the history of American book publishing. The Marxist magazine New Masses remarked on the strangeness of the incident and the industry in which it took place. Publishing, they wrote, was “like horse-breeding, a snob-and-specialty industry.” Unionization had been rare in the industry because it cultivated “an aura of gentility which leads to self-deception on the part of many workers in it.” And the costs of self-deception, the magazine argued, were high: “the majority of office workers are miserably paid and . . . unpaid overtime work is general.” In the case of the Macaulay Company strike, spurious gentility did not win the day. Malcolm Cowley and Dashiell Hammett appeared on the picket line, and authors withdrew their books until the strike was settled — which it was, in favor of the workers, who won the right to organize. At the time, one of great unrest in hitherto unorganized white-collar industries (such as commercial art and cartooning), it seemed to many that labor strife and unionization were poised to become general.

Eighty years later, despite and perhaps a little because of the convulsions that have overtaken the publishing industry, the scene remains largely as New Masses described it. Magazine and book publishing is still largely unorganized; strikes there, as elsewhere, are not only unheard of, but practically unimaginable; the aura of gentility still attends the industry, and inadequate pay and other poor working conditions are supposed to be accepted in exchange for the chance to work in a “creative” field. As in many other instances, but perhaps more acutely in publishing, the idea of a union — or organizing of any kind at all — is often seen as threatening the supposed prestige of the field: the intimate and apprentice-like relationship between bosses and assistants, and the basic, affable sociability of a white-collar workplace, which putatively eliminates or helps obscure unjustifiable inequalities in power between employers and the employed.

n+1’s symposium on the state of labor in the publishing industry looks at the working conditions of Grub Street through the eyes of five people who have struggled with them. It was prompted by the receipt of a memoir by Daniel Menaker, which describes an attempt in the 1970s to unionize what was then and still is the most prestigious magazine in the country, the New Yorker, against the wishes of the magazine’s most storied editor, William Shawn. The other essays bring the story up to the present. Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, which represents most white-collar unions in New York City (including Harper’s, HarperCollins, the graduate students of New York University, and the Museum of Modern Art), discusses the challenges of organizing office workers. Gemma Sieff, a former editor of Harper’s, recounts the effort to unionize the magazine in 2010. Maxine Phillips recounts the history of the distinguished socialist (and nonunionized) publication Dissent, where she was the executive editor until 2013. And, finally, Keith Gessen, cofounder and senior editor of n+1, comes clean about the labor conditions at this (nonunion) magazine over the ten years of its precarious existence. These essays are in no way perfectly representative of the entire industry, nor even of the workplaces they describe. But taken together they reveal the challenges publishing workers face in fighting for conditions that match the high ideals for which their workplaces claim to stand.

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