When an author came to the picket line on day 45 of our strike to chat with us and show his support, one of my fellow HarperCollins union members posed a question: what does “winning” even look like for the company at this point? As our strike passes day 53 and counting, this question is certainly worth considering.
Since the strike began on Nov. 10, the position of the HarperCollins union (UAW Local 2110) hasn’t changed. Our main demands are a $50,000 minimum salary, diversity and inclusion language written into our contract, and increased union security by returning to a “union shop” system—meaning union contribution responsibilities are shared across all employees hired into union-eligible positions regardless of membership status. What “winning” looks like for us is an easy answer: HarperCollins corporate returns to the bargaining table and offers a fair contract that meets our demands.
As the strike drags on, corporate’s stagnation has been frustrating and baffling to us all: to those of us on the line, to our non-union colleagues inside, and to the authors, agents, reviewers, and thousands of readers who have shown their support. Corporate’s “winning” strategy seems to be a somewhat juvenile hope that, if they just ignore the strike for long enough, we will all quietly give up and head back to work without any union contract at all.
The stubborn silence from HarperCollins’ executive leadership and HR department—known internally as the People Team—not only demonstrates a lack of care for the company’s own employees but also reveals a concerning shortsightedness when it comes to the impacts this strike is having on the wider book industry and HarperCollins’ industry-wide reputation as a major publisher.
Voting to go on strike was a bold and brave measure that no one in the HarperCollins union took lightly, and the decision was only made after months of fraught negotiations with corporate that went nowhere. No one expected the strike to go on this long; the last time the union went on strike in the 1970s, it lasted 17 days. But the more we hear about corporate’s internal response, the more motivated we are to stay on the line until they come back to the bargaining table.
The latest report from supporters inside the company is that president and CEO Brian Murray was overheard falsely telling one executive that HarperCollins already offered us the $50K and we’re just being “unreasonable.” (Brian, if you read this and would like to make that offer to us, we’d love to see it. However, as of right now, no such offer has been made to any union representatives). Corporate leadership lying about negotiations almost feels like a natural progression of their callousness and outright antagonism toward the union. In their messaging, they have continuously minimized our contributions to the company, presenting us as merely outside agitators.
Meanwhile, in front of the office’s entrance, we rotate through our picketing shifts carrying signs that read “We are asking for SO LITTLE,” and “Record Profits = Stolen Wages.” Between the chanting and cheering, we talk to each other about how the books we put our hearts into are not getting key prize nominations because we are not there to nominate them. Numerous book schedules have been pushed back despite the company’s promise to authors that nothing has changed. Most of all, we open up to each other about job conditions. The topic of wage compression has surfaced in several conversations I’ve had on the line with dedicated employees who have worked at the company for 10, 15, even 20 years. In addition, there is an expectation that we will work on expanding the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives without compensation for that labor. Both issues are addressed in our current proposals that HarperCollins has walked away from.
We have held the picket line while hurricanes brew and temperatures get colder and colder. We have hugged the colleagues and managers required to be in the building as they pass on words of support and assure us that we have even more supporters inside than we think. And, of course, we have excitedly greeted authors—sometimes ones we’ve worked with personally—who stop by to show their solidarity.
The primary way that authors, agents, and reviewers can help us during the strike is to avoid crossing the picket line. We ask that authors refrain from signing new contracts with the company, that agents avoid submitting any new projects to HarperCollins editors, and that reviewers stay away from reviewing HarperCollins books. This way, we do not provide the company with content that could be used on book jackets and in promotions without workers there to generate these materials. Going into the strike, we felt confident making these requests, because we understand that solidarity across the industry is essential in creating the kind of meaningful change we’re fighting for: a publishing environment that is far more accessible and sustainable at all levels.
In a historically white-led industry, the people who get to work in publishing and the works that get published often go hand in hand. To serve authors from marginalized communities, publishing wages (especially low-level wages in a city as prohibitively expensive as New York) must become more accessible to workers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and diversity and inclusion language must be explicitly outlined to support BIPOC employees who risk more to advocate for themselves in majority-white publishing spaces. These steps also serve to help HarperCollins retain the BIPOC, queer, disabled, and diverse labor that it claims to seek out and celebrate as a global publisher.
When we were first discussing what support we could expect from the industry, we had our authors front of mind. For example, we did not call for a boycott of HarperCollins titles because we understood how that could negatively impact an author’s future projects. This consideration demonstrates one of the company’s biggest boasts: author care. The HarperCollins website even proudly claims, “At HarperCollins, authors and their work are at the center of everything we do.” I know this belief to be true among my colleagues, but corporate’s negligence and failure in resolving this strike has led even longtime HarperCollins authors to publically wonder if they will continue to publish with HarperCollins.
The same author who came to chat with us at the picket line on day 45 also told a story of how hilariously easy it was to spot an industry executive at the Frankfurt Book Fair—the largest trade fair for books in the world—just from the way he talked. “All numbers,” said the author. “Like books were just like little apps to him.”
His funny quip resonates with us in a deeper way. Before coming to HarperCollins, our CEO worked as a consultant for an IT firm. The senior vice president of the People Team appears to have bounced around from HR job to HR job in advertising, energy, and food. Good workers and dedicated publishing professionals can come from anywhere, but when it comes to who’s calling the shots in the industry, it’s worth asking: who are the real outsiders?