The chants from our strike have been getting stuck in my head. I make dinner to the rhythm of “HarperCollins you can’t hide; we can see your greedy side,” and dream in “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union.” My fellow striking workers of the HarperCollins union, part of UAW Local 2110, have even expanded to song parodies, two beautiful souls starting one to the tune of “Low Rider” by War that goes something like “All my friends have a low paycheck (duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, pay us).” One current chant-related goal is to rhyme something with “Passion doesn’t pay the rent,” so we can get a call-and-response going. (“Passion doesn’t pay the bills” has also been batted around; if you have any suggestions, please tweet at us @hcpunion.)
You can hear our chants for yourself during our new winter-weather hours from 10:30 AM to 2:30 PM outside the HarperCollins offices on 195 Broadway. We walk the picket line outside the entrances on the shady and short Dey Street, where tourists stop to take pictures of the white spires of the Oculus, the gleaming One World Trade Center, and sometimes the curiosity that is us. Between the towering buildings of the financial district, the sounds of our cowbells, tambourines, bucket-drums, and clappers echo up to the floors above. What do we want? A contract. When do we want it? Now.
Last April—when our contract expired—would also have been nice. Sometime between then and last December—when we first started negotiations with the company—would’ve been even better. For almost a year now, it’s been clear that the HarperCollins People Team (corporate’s revamped name for HR) and the lawyers from our parent company, News Corp, hope that our bargaining committee can be scolded into thinking we are asking for too much—that we can be discouraged into bargaining against ourselves.
An observer can catch HarperCollins president and CEO, Brian Murray, crossing the picket line most mornings, evenings, and lunchtimes, although sometimes he avoids us by taking the entrance through Starbucks on the corner of the building by Dey and Church. His response to the strike so far (tucked away in a since-deleted report on the company’s profits) has been characteristic of management’s approach: some people will always want more. What exactly does more look like to the workers at HarperCollins? A fair contract that guarantees union security, codifies diversity protections, and most crucially increases salary minimums from $45,000 to $50,000.
Like a lot of white-collar sectors, publishing has long been an industry guilty of exploiting the nebulous quality that bosses like to call “passion.” My colleagues and I have the jobs we do because we love books, we believe they have power and significance, and we work incredibly hard on their behalf. But anyone who’s worked in the industry—at one of the “Big Five” publishers like HarperCollins, or at a small agency whose team members can be counted on one hand—has heard lines like one leaked from an influential HarperCollins higher-up early on in the strike: if we just “stuck it out” for ten years, we could stand to make a decent living in publishing. We’ve been told that this is just how it is. The industry’s established players hardened themselves to low pay and long hours, so what’s our problem?
Claims like this ring especially hollow in an industry as demographically unbalanced as publishing, which is overwhelmingly staffed by young women on the lower levels and overwhelmingly white at all levels. Many who have “stuck it out” in publishing have had their low wages cushioned by the help of a partner’s income or support from upper- or middle-class families. But workers without the benefits of whiteness, without well-paid spouses or partners, without families who have income to spare for their expenses month after month are too often pushed out. Living in a city like New York on $45,000 is difficult and inhumane; trying to do it while battling racism and sexism on the daily is even more so. The union’s position is clear: if this industry wants to retain the love and passion it runs on, something (the corporate powers that be) has gotta give (us more money).
In this under-organized industry, many are surprised that HarperCollins has a union at all. How did workers at a corporation owned by a megacorporation owned by a notoriously conservative family pull that off? Alongside a lengthy history of mergers and acquisitions—from the company’s beginnings as J&J Harper in 1817 to the creation of HarperCollins in 1990 to today—a union has persisted, consisting initially of editorial staff in the 1940s and since expanding to include marketers, publicists, production editors, audiobook specialists, subrights assistants, and designers. Even in the wake of the New Deal, the union was unusual at its inception, given that it was formed of white-collar workers who were mostly women. At the time, there was a presumption that these jobs were for wives and daughters to do more or less as hobbies, rather than as a meaningful source of income. Although these early organizers weren’t always the primary breadwinners for themselves or their families, the existence of the union at all suggests to me that they nevertheless took their jobs seriously enough to move to protect them. Over time, the context of the workforce has shifted—but attitudes surrounding it, and justifications for persistently low wages, have not.
Still, unions are rare in the publishing industry. HarperCollins is the only Big Five to have one, and only a handful of smaller publishers, including Oxford University Press and Duke University Press, have unionized within the last few years. That said, the strike has come among a wave of actions in adjacent industries. Two other UAW-affiliated unions also began open-ended strikes in November, one led by the workers in the University of California system, and one by the part-time faculty and staff at the New School here in the city. (A month ago, 95 percent of the New York University adjuncts—covered by the same union as the New School—also voted to strike, but this was avoided by a last-minute agreement from the university.1)
The last time the HarperCollins union went on strike was in the 1970s, bolstered, like today, by a moment of broader political unrest and collective action. At that time, the strike lasted for seventeen days, and word on the street is the company found it within them to agree to a fair contract then. There was another vote to strike in the 1980s, around the time News Corp purchased Harper & Row, but key votes were flipped at the last minute, and the company brought in corporate raiders and stripped union security—something the union is fighting for now, and which had been in place from the beginning—from our contract.
Leading up to this year’s strike, the anxiety and frustration from union members toward the company was palpable even over video meetings and emails. HarperCollins still largely operates remotely (although good old Brian has since issued a mandate to change this), and it’s generally difficult when you work from your own living space to feel fully connected to the whole. Many people, myself included, are pandemic hires. We’ve seldom, if ever, actually come down to work in the office. Even so, our union’s organizing committee met with nearly every individual member for one-on-one chats about questions and concerns, and we were greeted with an enormous amount of careful consideration. What do we do if bosses pressure us to write out instructions for how to handle our everyday tasks? What will happen to our authors? Each of us understood the power in this decision. When it came time to vote, out of 200 or so members, more than 190 voted to authorize.
The first two days of the strike, we asked anyone who could make the commute to come down to 195 Broadway for maximum turnout and maximum noise. In the last two weeks, I’ve met many of my coworkers for the first time, put faces to names I’d only ever seen over email, and have learned about many people’s personal struggles and motivations and frustrations. “I feel closer to you all than ever before,” one picket captain noted in a recent weekly debrief meeting. “This is definitely a weird time, but I feel the camaraderie and it’s really meaningful.” Between chants, we talk about what departments we work in and how long we’ve worked there—but unlike an office happy hour that devolves into venting and complaining, we’re having conversations about how to improve things. As our union chair remarked in that same meeting, “We’re frickin’ striking and we’re talking about how to make our workplace better—that’s what this is about!” The very passion that publishing has exploited us for is what now drives our long days on the line.
For the hundred or so workers who are able to come to the line in person, there’s another hundred on our fantastic remote strike team, working our social media page, creating graphics, organizing food donations, and a million other things. We have group chats posting tweets of support, TikToks, screenshots of author letters to the company, photos of Padma Lakshmi wearing one of our very own HarperCollins union on strike buttons at the National Book Awards and at the National Book Awards afterparty. In the chat we answer one another’s questions on unemployment applications and offer up codes for food delivery and pass along advice on staying warm in the thirty-degree weather we’ve been having. Many authors and HarperCollins coworkers who aren’t eligible for the union have come to the line, in solidarity and to ask how best to support. Even employees from other publishing houses have come by with donations of food and words of encouragement, some even joining us marching on the line for a period. It’s no longer anxiety that defines the mood, but hope.
As one industry employee who stopped by to express support was saying to me this week, all eyes are on us. And we feel it. If we can move the company to make our workplace more equitable, then other publishers will have to change in kind to keep up. And I think all of us are keenly feeling our value and the necessity for a fair contract now. So what do we want? A contract. When do we want it? Now. If we don’t get it? Shut it down.