Solidarity Sunday: HarperCollins Union Victory

HarperCollins is a multibillion dollar publishing company – the second largest in the United States – owned by none other than Rupert Murdoch. As my main source for this post puts it, you have read books from this publisher. As one might expect from such a large and profitable corporation, with such an infamous owner, they haven’t been treating their workers especially well, so at the end of 2022, they went on strike.

Stephanie Guerdan started working in the children’s book department of HarperCollins Publishers six years ago. It was a dream job – just not a dream paycheck. The $33,500-a-year (£28,750) salary was well below a livable wage in New York City, but Guerdan didn’t ask for more. “I was terrified that I was not going to get that job if I negotiated,” they said. “Publishing is very much an industry where they tell you, ‘If you don’t want this, there are 500 people in line behind you who do.’”

Publishing has for decades has been known for its low pay and overwhelmingly white staff. But workers at HarperCollins, the only member of the “big four” publishing houses to have a union, have had enough and authorized an indefinite strike. Work stopped at the downtown Manhattan offices on the sunny morning of 10 November. Employees like Guerdan, who is a shop steward at the union, spilled on to the streets to picket.

“We want to create a workplace that is more financially sustainable for employees and accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds,” said Olga Brudastova, president of Local 2110 United Auto Workers, the union that HarperCollins workers are part of.

More than 250 HarperCollins employees are unionized, including workers in the editorial, sales, publicity, design, legal and marketing departments. The strike was authorized by a vote of 95.1% last month. It comes after 11 months of negotiations with HarperCollins management over a new contract, and a one-day strike that occurred on 20 July.

According to the union, the average salary at the company is $55,000 annually, and the majority of employees are women. HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, reported record profits in 2021.

“We’re willing to stay out as long as it takes,” Guerdan said. “After about a week, the company is really going to feel the loss of all our essential labor. I’ve talked to friends who are not in the union, and their assessment of it has been, ‘I don’t think the company knows what’s going to hit them.’”

It’s easy to look at the history of workers’ rights over the last half century, and become cynical. Even discounting Biden’s decision to deny rail workers their right to strike, we’ve seen plenty of attempted labor actions end in disappointment. This is not one of those cases. Guerdan, it turns out, was right. The company may have started to hurt after about a week, but the union workers held the strike for three months, and they wore down the greedy fuckers at the top. The new contract, while far from the worker ownership I’d personally like to see, is a big upgrade, and proof that collective action works:

  • Minimum wage increase, immediately to $47,500 with a ramp-up to $50,000 by 2025.
  • A $1,500 bonus for all union members, presumably to partially offset the costs of being left without a paycheck by their company since November
  • Guaranteed annual raises for all marked satisfactory or above
  • Union letter and membership card included in new-hire packets
  • Joint Labor/Management committee to meet monthly
  • Time on aforementioned committee and/or all company-sponsored DEI activities will be seen as and paid as work time (as opposed to the free labor junior employees were expected to contribute previously)
  • Juneteenth and Presidents’ Day added as permanent paid holidays (as opposed to, you know, a one-time publicity stunt a la June 2020)
  • Return-to-office not mandated for union employees until July 1 (currently, Harper expects employees to live and work in NYC)

The above are just the guaranteed, contractually mandated changes that will be implemented at Harper. This does not include the ripple effects that have already begun in the rest of the industry.

Collective action works.

Note that second bullet point. I’ve described strikes as sieges before, and I mean that very literally. The way our society is set up, if you don’t have money, the government will use force to prevent you from having the means to survive, because those means “belong” to someone else, like a landlord, or a grocery store that throws out large amounts of food every day. The default is that you don’t have a right to life or liberty, and a right to “pursuit of happiness” only really exists if you define that as spending the majority of your waking life further enriching the worst people in the world.

How many of you, dear readers, could go without a paycheck for three months? It’s my understanding is that for most people in the U.S., that would be a rough time. That’s part of why the pathetic government response to the mass joblessness caused by the pandemic was so unconscionable. The main point of society is that through working together, we can guarantee a minimum standard of living, and some basic degree of safety. The primary project of neoliberalism has been to remove all of that, and to leave us all at the whims of capitalists. The last few years have given us a good look at how well that “works”.

In many ways, a union is an effort to re-form that part of society that capitalism destroyed in its creation. Because we lost the commons, and with them the option to survive outside of the capitalist system, we’ve been forced to accept the terms of capitalists, and encouraged to compete with each other for the scraps they give. Working together to survive and thrive has always been at the core of the human experience, and it feels as though we’ve been living through an effort to cut out that reflexive solidarity. Unions bring that back, and give us a way to re-contextualize our struggle for survival, and actually make progress, rather than simply hoping that we’re one of the lucky ones uplifted by our rulers.

That’s why they hate unions so much.

When I was younger, I often encountered what I think of as “The Henry Ford Argument”. You’ve probably heard this myth – Henry Ford, benevolent business genius that he was, knew that if he paid his workers well, they would, in turn, have enough to buy his cars, and the net effect would be beneficial to everyone. In this story, that’s the origin of the good jobs in the auto industry that were a centerpiece of mid-20th century U.S. life. In reality, Ford was a fascist who ended up caving to United Auto Workers, and as with so many other “leaders”, his story was re-written to make him look better from a modern perspective:

Seventy-five years ago today, in 1941, workers at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, launched a successful strike for union recognition. The Rouge was the largest industrial complex in the world, created as an impregnable anti-union fortress. The company’s Service Department spied on and committed violent acts against workers and trade union advocates who approached the factory gates.

The Rouge gates were the site of two of the most notorious anti-union episodes in U.S. labor history. In the 1932 Ford Hunger March, Ford service members and Dearborn police opened fire on unemployed demonstrators, killing four immediately. In the 1937 Battle of the Overpass, Ford service members beat UAW officials Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen and a dozen union supporters, mostly women, seeking to pass out flyers.

The company’s violent proclivities were made especially dangerous by the media-savvy popularity of the company’s founder and principal owner, Henry Ford.  The iconic billionaire was the recipient of millions of dollars of free publicity for his advocacy of a high-wage, high-productivity, high-consumption society. His philosophy also included opposition to unions, to the New Deal, and to women working outside the home. Most disturbing was his publication and distribution of the anti-Semitic forgery, The International Jew, and his acceptance of a medal in 1938 from the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler.

Ford was one of the most well-known individuals in the world in 1941. Opposed by unionists, liberals, and leftists, he nevertheless was viewed by many as a “friend of labor.” The majority of Ford workers at the Rouge complex thought otherwise. They overcame not only violence and the Ford media halo but also the company’s attempt to break their strike by dividing them along racial lines and charging their strike was a Communist plot.

In the capitalist fairy tale, we live in a world full of win-win exchanges, where the best option is always naturally chosen by “market forces”. In that world, it’s only natural for capitalists to want their workers to be happy and healthy, so they’ll enjoy their lives, and not cause problems. It’s one of those things that works in theory, but ignores the reality of who has always been empowered by capitalism. When they see workers enjoying life, they get jealous, and angry that all that money and time isn’t going to them. They can’t help themselves – they have to take more. That’s why, in the words of one of my favorite labor songs, a strong and healthy working class is the thing that they most fear. People who are physically weak, sick, and desperate are far, far less likely to be able to last through a siege. They do most of their work ahead of time by trying to ensure that their enemy – the workers who enrich them – are already under a sort of minor siege, just from day to day life. I’m talking about capitalists in pretty absolutist and unsympathetic terms, but as the Ford example shows, this is always how it goes. This is what capitalism does.

The HarperCollins union is continuing the noble human tradition of working together for the common good. As mentioned earlier, this win will ripple out through the industry, as some companies raise wages to prevent unionization in their workforce, as other companies see their own strikes, and a new industry standard wage is set. That’s a huge change, especially when you remember that it came from less than 300 people, plus however many supported them through the strike.

When you look at a labor win like this, you can see, very faintly, the foundations of a new kind of society. Ford used the same playbook that modern capitalists use, and in a way, they’re not wrong about strikes being a “communist plot”. Leaving aside the natural prevalence of socialists and communists in unions, that kind of organization makes it very clear that rulers are rarely needed, if ever. Bosses usually cave to a well-organized strike, because they know that the alternative – trying to impose more authoritarian rule over the workers – could lead to them losing everything.

That’s the thing about organizing that inspires and uplifts me. It shows a way that we can start building a different world whether or not our current rulers want us to. That’s not to say that victory is guaranteed, or that the way forward is safe. I fully expect that if we start actually threatening the power of the aristocracy, they will try to crush us, and they will not balk at using lethal force. The effort to use poverty to keep us in line is already lethal to countless people, and they absolutely use violence to enforce that poverty.

But the problem with a harsh crackdown is that it tends to drive recruitment for the underdogs. It rubs people’s faces in the reality of their situation, and inspires those who want something better to actually do something. The capitalist class has vast, terrifying power, and they wield it without mercy all over the world, every day. It’s right to be afraid of them, but it’s also important to notice that they are afraid of us. We are not powerless. We have the same ancient might that made humanity what it is today, and we can access that power by working together.

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