HarperCollins Strike Continues With No Sign of an End

As the labor action enters its third week, we interview a key union member

The HarperCollins Union, representing over 250 employees in editorial, sales, publicity, design, legal and marketing, is on strike. Since November 10, 2022, workers have withheld their labor and picketed outside the billion-dollar publisher’s New York City headquarters to demand higher wages and an increased commitment to diversity. To date, union members allege that management has refused to acknowledge the action.

HarperCollins is the only unionized Big Five publisher, and has been unionized for over 80 years. This strike is the second in 2022, after a lengthy negotiation process that has left workers without a contract since April. Meanwhile, the publishing giant has reported record profits for 2021.

In solidarity with striking workers, a number of authors, writers and other stakeholders are withholding their financial support of HarperCollins during the strike. The publisher’s teen marketing brand, EpicReads, has the bad luck of picking right now to hold its Book Shimmy Awards—and the union is calling on winners to decline their awards. “Everyone creating content for ER right now is either middle management or a scab,” said the union in a tweet.

I spoke with shop steward and negotiating committee member, Stephanie Guerdan, who is an associate editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. 

You’ve been on strike since November 10, which is over two weeks at the time we’re speaking. How is morale? 

Still high! Everyone knows we’re doing something scary but important, and every day the company refuses to reach out, the more frustrated and determined folks become.

What have been some highlights of the experience so far?

The super generous outpouring of support—we’ve received so many food donations that we had to put a pause on accepting them, and others have donated to our strike fund in shocking amounts!

Have there been any big or surprising supporters?

Not surprising, necessarily—we know our authors understand the value of the work we do. That said, some vocal supporters have been Padma Lakshmi and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, who hosted [and] presented at the National Book Awards; Angie Thomas, Madeline Miller, Barbara Kingsolver, Gail Carson Levine [and] Meg Cabot—all huge HarperCollins backlist authors—and dozens more. Additionally, over 150 agents have signed an open letter stating that they won’t submit anything new to HarperCollins until the strike is settled.

Something that I see a number of unions on strike or workplaces organizing lately is the role that social media plays in disseminating the workers’ message much more quickly and strongly than some of the old PR ways of management. And you all have been no exception: you are great at Twitter and Instagram. How has social media been helpful while on strike? 

It’s been extremely helpful in terms of getting the word out about what’s going on and in building support; all of the authors I’ve mentioned above have posted about our fight on social media and it helps us drive attention to our strike fund. Since we’re not taking a paycheck from Harper during the strike, being able to maintain financial security for our members is a top priority–the longer we can hold out, the more pressure Harper will feel, so those donations are crucial as we head into December.

One of the most recent tweets I saw from the @hcpunion account indicated that there still had been no contact from management. Is that still the case? 

As of 11/23/22, we haven’t had any contact from management about scheduling additional bargaining sessions. 

What do you make of that?

Management is being wilfully obtuse to the importance of our work because they think that they can ice us out—that if they keep their eyes closed long enough the strike will blow over and the problem will go away. But we’re not going anywhere until we get what we’re asking for.

This is the second time you’ve gone on strike this year, after voting for a one-day strike on July 20. Both times, the vote to go on strike was overwhelmingly high—over 95% of the union’s 250+ members. Can you describe some of the conditions that frustrated your workers enough to bring you here?

Pay has been critically low in publishing for generations, and people are sick of hearing the company pay lip service to the importance of diversity and inclusion without committing to any concrete policies for improving its DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] programs. We’re tired of watching the company bank record profits multiple years in a row and then being told we need to manage our salary expectations because the current minimums are “industry standard”—as if that excuses how low they are rather than being an indictment. Management loves to give us credit for our work in company presentations and shareholder calls, but as soon as we want them to put their money where their mouths are, the same old “we’re in it for the passion, not for the paycheck” anthem rears its ugly head.

My understanding is that one of the big issues that you’re organizing around is the lack of diversity in the publishing industry. What are some of your demands in seeking a more equitable workforce?

We want to make sure workers are compensated when they do DEI-related work for the company and to codify policies that will increase hiring and retention of people from underrepresented backgrounds. Without an actual economic investment in improving conditions for marginalized workers at Harper, those employees will continue to burn out of the industry under the weight of doing free diversity consultation and experiencing bigotry at an already-difficult, underpaid job.

I see in other write-ups on the union that its members make up a comparatively small amount of the HCP workforce. Can you describe who makes up your bargaining unit?

Our union includes over 250 employees, working in departments throughout the company including editorial, sales, publicity, managing editorial, design, legal, and marketing. While we are only a small number of the company’s worldwide workforce, our shop is based in the New York office and makes up between 30-40% of the staff at that location.

HCP has been unionized for over 80 years and is the only Big Five publisher with a union. How does being a unionized worker offer protections or benefits that other publishing house employees would miss?

Collective action is protected legally whether or not a company has a union—see the Hachette walkout over Woody Allen’s memoir as an example—but the existence of our union means that we have both the privilege and the responsibility to push for systemic change in the industry. Additionally, our contract offers concrete benefits that supersede the law when they improve on it–for example, the legal salary ceiling for overtime eligibility is 58,500, but all of our members are overtime-eligible even if they make more than that.

On day 13 of this strike, where do you plan to go from here? What are your next steps whether or not management goes to the negotiation table with you?

We know we’re fighting for what’s right and we’re confident that we’ll win. We’ll be out on the picket line until we have a contract, and will take any other steps to escalate pressure on the company that make sense as the strike continues. (For example, right now Harper’s teen marketing arm EpicReads is holding an end-of-year contest that authors are using as a platform to talk about the strike.) Following our social media is the best way to stay up to date!

How can readers help?

By spreading the word, donating, and more! We have a full thread here of ways to help: 

 

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

2 thoughts on “HarperCollins Strike Continues With No Sign of an End

  • November 30, 2022 at 8:10 pm
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    Terrific article.

    Reply
  • December 1, 2022 at 8:00 am
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    Katie’s article is well done, as usual. But as someone with many years of experience in publishing, I don’t believe that the supposed lack of diversity is the result of the industry “paying lip service to the importance of diversity and inclusion without committing to any concrete policies.”

    Publishing executives in general are progressive folk. Just look at the authors they sign and the books they put out. They would love to hire people from all kinds of backgrounds. What’s missing here is any methodology re. the number of candidates and the number of openings. Those who complain about the perceived lack of diversity could take a more thoughtful approach and show a bit of intellectual rigor in the exploration of a complex issue, rather than simply lashing out at the industry.

    Reply

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