After three months on strike, employees at HarperCollins Publishers are now back at work after finally ratifying a new contract with the company. Jacobin spoke with HarperCollins workers about their walkout and what they won.
Employees of HarperCollins strike outside the company’s offices in Manhattan, November 15, 2022. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
On November 10, 2022, workers at HarperCollins Publishers walked off the job over what they described as the company’s refusal to put a fair contract offer on the table, citing HarperCollins’s refusal to move on wage increases and other demands. After nearly three months on strike, the union representing the workers, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, announced it had reached a tentative agreement with the company on February 9, 2023; on February 16, the union announced that its members had ratified the contract. Workers formally ended the strike and returned to work earlier this week. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke with HarperCollins worker-organizers about their strike and what it achieved.
When did the organizing around the strike begin?
We did a one-day strike in July; that took several weeks of conversation to do, to go on strike for one day, and we were hoping that that would be enough to make the company deliver a fair offer. But when that didn’t happen, we were still trying to meet with them over the next couple of months. Then again, when that was not working, we had a bit of an ongoing conversation between July and November 2022.
Can you tell me what led to the decision to strike? Was it working conditions or HarperCollins’s refusal to come to the table?
The one-day strike was itself a response to management letting our contract expire. We started negotiating in December of 2021, and then they extended our contract, when we still didn’t have an agreement, to April 2022. Then April came and went, the company let our contract expire, and they didn’t show any signs of even trying to set up another meeting. We didn’t see any progress there.
We had some more contact with the company after the one-day strike, but there was still no progress and definitely no meaningful movement toward addressing and taking seriously the concerns that we wanted and needed addressed in the contract. That’s when we started organizing the indefinite strike.
We had three main contract demands — primarily a higher entry-level salary, and also raising the minimum at the next couple of levels, because the minimums are really compressed right now and don’t reflect the work that’s done at those levels and the levels of experience that are required to do those jobs.
We also wanted the company to commit to codifying diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives into the contract. Rather than just paying lip service, we wanted to make sure it’s in the contract, it’s binding, it’s something that they have to stick to.
We were also seeking union security. We have what’s called an open shop, which means that there are over two hundred jobs in the company that are covered by the union contract — but in an open shop, not everybody is a member of the union; you have to sign a dues card to be a member. It’s a form of union busting, because it hard for the union to reach out to new hires and explain, “Hey, we have a union, here’s what we can do. Will you sign a dues card?”
We want to move away from the union-busting open shop into what’s known as an agency shop. In an agency shop, when you’re hired into a union position, you either have to sign a dues card to become a dues-paying member of the union or you can pay agency fees, which are pretty much the same amount of money but don’t make you a member of the union, if you simply don’t want to be a member. But it requires everybody who is covered by the contract and benefits from the work that the union is doing to share the cost of collective bargaining and collective labor. We have overwhelming support for that within the membership.
How did HarperCollins react to the strike?
The first couple of weeks, it seemed like their strategy was to try to wait us out, to see if we would just give up and give in if they were ignoring us. We went about fifty-five days without hearing a word from management directly to us. We heard about them sending internal memos to people still working, or talking to media, but they did not reach out to us for about fifty-five days. They eventually agreed to meet with a federal mediator that we were assigned.
It seemed like the company’s strategy was to try to wait us out, to see if we would just give up and give in if they were ignoring us.
The other thing the company did was to use very obvious union-busting lines and strikebreaking lines to people who are not in the union and still working, but also to readers on social media — trying to make it seem like we were causing division, which of course we weren’t. We had huge support from every area of the industry, because every single person who’s been involved in publishing at all over the last couple of decades knows exactly why we were fighting for what we were fighting for and why we need it.
A lot of HarperCollins’s memos and communications with agents and authors and internal people claimed that our demands were unreasonable and that we don’t understand how the industry works, which is not true. We are all well versed in and good at our jobs.
Another thing the company did, even before the strike, was otherizing us. We’re affiliated with the United Auto Workers, so they’ve taken to referring to us as the United Auto Workers rather than employees of HarperCollins Publishers, which is a classic union-busting technique to try to make it seem like we are outside agitators rather than extremely dedicated employees of the company.
Can you say more about how the public and other workers in your industry reacted to the strike?
There was an overwhelming outpouring of support. Everyone, from the people we work with who are not in the union at HarperCollins to other publishing houses, agents, and authors, showed up for us in so many ways: donating money to our hardship fund, because we’re not being paid while we’re on strike; dropping off food; and sending hand warmers for days when there were subfreezing temperatures outside the office. Readers were really supportive too — and outside the publishing world, this is something that people all over the place were talking about and aware of.
We had people support us, not just by vocally supporting us online or sending in emails but also by standing on the picket line with us, even virtually. Part of my job is hiring freelance copyeditors for manuscripts. So many extremely talented copyeditors that we work with a lot did not accept new projects with the company while we were on strike. Agents held submissions of new manuscripts to the company. Not only were they rooting for us but they actually fought with us.
It wasn’t just individual agents doing this. We had entire agencies commit to withholding submissions from HarperCollins until they delivered us a fair contract. We had over two hundred agents sign a letter stating that at the beginning of the strike.
There were people who work and live in the Financial District, where HarperCollins headquarters is, who walked by and were like, “What’s going on here?” and then will take a flyer. We had someone who came on his lunch break every day and marched with us, just because he happened to see it one day when he was on his lunch break downtown.
We had entire agencies commit to withholding submissions from HarperCollins until they delivered us a fair contract.
How did you keep the energy or momentum around the strike going for so long?
Being down on the picket line several times a week is what kept me going. Because if you’re having a hard day, or if you’re like, “Okay, I’m feeling really tired of this, this is so stressful,” going down and absorbing the energy of everybody around you is such a game changer. It makes it so much easier, it makes it so much more fun, to be able to lift each other up.
I am one of the many remote workers at the company who doesn’t live in New York. So we couldn’t come to the picket line every day. But we had our own teams running social media, managing our email, and doing outreach and organizing that way. We totally fed off the energy from the in-person strikers on the picket line.
On the remote side, we were all divided into so many different teams; we were constantly brainstorming ways to add pressure, brainstorming memes, having fun with it, and feeding off of the excitement and the energy. For me, it all came from this place of knowing that we deserve what we were asking for.
The in-person strikers fed off the remote workers in the same way. The remote teams that Michelle was talking about were the reason that the strike had so much support. They ran all of our social media, they did all of our outreach to authors, agents, universities, and the media. So almost every day on the picket line, we were like, “Can we have a shout out for the remote team?” Because thank God for the remote team.
What’s in the new contract? Do you feel good about it?
I feel great about it. One thing it does is increase minimum salaries for each job-title level. Those immediately affect people who are the lowest paid — anybody who’s making less than those new minimums. And those minimums will continue to go up: they go up this year and then next year and the year after, eventually bringing the minimum starting salary to $50,000, which is what we wanted, by 2025. That, in and of itself, is a huge win, not only for us but for the rest of the industry, to have this standard at one of the biggest publishers.
Another thing we won was a pay-structure adjustment. We’re able to have two hours of overtime preapproved, so we don’t need to get our managers’ approval for those two hours of overtime every week. That’s for everybody whose salary is less than $60,000; I think our average salary in the union is about $55,000. So that covers tons of people and gives us that extra amount in our paychecks.
It was disappointing at first to not get the $50,000 starting salary immediately. But when we consider how the company did not want to give us anything close to that — we’ve been fighting for this since 2021, and we’ve had to fight for every dollar, sometimes in negotiations fighting for ten dollars at a time — it makes a huge difference now, but it makes an even bigger difference for the future.
Another thing that we wanted but weren’t able to win was the agency shop. I think that’s something that we’ll continue to push for. But in the meantime, we’ve had to get creative in finding ways to strengthen our union power. Our bargaining team was able to increase the number of stewards that we have; we went from five to eight. We also have more release time for union meetings.
We’ve had to fight for every dollar — sometimes in negotiations fighting for ten dollars at a time.
We also now have in our agreement that when somebody is hired into a union position, they’re given a welcome packet and a union dues card, and, in general, more information about the union at the company right when they start. It sounds like something that the company should have been doing anyway. But when I first started, the only thing that I heard about the union was the current union contract shoved in with all of my onboarding paperwork, and I was basically told, “That’s your union contract, you don’t have to do anything about that. Moving on . . . .” Some people didn’t even hear the union acknowledged; they didn’t even know that we had a union for their first three months working here. So that is huge — being able to have that open line of communication right off the bat as soon as someone joins, so they can at least know that we’re here and know what resources they have a right to.
How is it to be back in the workplace?
I think being back in the workplace has been different for everybody. Some people had a lot of welcoming energy when they were returning. But also it’s been a little tough to try to bridge misunderstandings with people who only heard what was happening through the company while we were on strike.
We came back to a lot of work — figuring out what needs to be prioritized, sorting through thousands of emails. It’s been really nice to get back to doing that work, because this is the work that I love to do. Yesterday afternoon, I was copyediting book-jacket copy. And I was like, “Ah, this is all I wanted to do the entire time,” because I just wanted to be able to do my job and know that I’m being paid fairly for it.Original post