HarperCollins strike reminds students of the power of unions

Publishing+workers+pledge+to+continue+their+strike+until+their+demands+of+higher+pay+and+codifying+diversity+are+met.

Photo: Hailey Akau

Publishing workers pledge to continue their strike until their demands of higher pay and codifying diversity are met.

By Olivia LeDuc, Staff Writer

Unionized employees from HarperCollins, one of the largest book publishers in the country, began an indefinite strike on Nov. 10 due to frustrations over low wages and lack of diversity within the company. 

“It’s a good thing for people to unionize, which is something I recommend to my students when they go off and get their publishing jobs,” said Gian Lombardo, a book publishing professor and former president of the full-time faculty union at Emerson. “Being active in a union will improve the workplace for professionals in the industry.”

Lombardo said students ambitious to join the publishing industry should not be exploited for their work and are deserving of a guaranteed, reasonable salary as a professional occupation, on par with employees at HarperCollins. 

Approximately 250 union members, including employees in the editorial, publicity, sales, marketing, legal, and design departments, have been working without a contract since April, according to a New York Times article. Negotiations began December 2021, with workers planning to discontinue working until an agreement is reached. 

HarperCollins employees, part of Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, now demand higher pay, a stronger resolution to diversifying staff, and better family leave. A recent Instagram post from the HarperCollins union page shows workers marching outside the company’s New York office to make their propositions known. 

“The strike is a good move to receive better terms for those who are not paid that well,” Lombardo said, adding that the strike is the workers’ last straw in withholding their labor to level the power differential between them and the company. 

Collective bargaining boils down to workers earning a fairer chance of receiving more favorable labor terms, Lombardo said. The HarperCollins strike is yet another tally of strikes on the national scene, similar to initiatives taken by Starbucks employees in Boston.

“Workers need to be able to maintain a halfway standard of living,” Lombardo said. “This is a professional business and industry and people should be paid like professionals.” 

He mentioned the publishing industry is one of the lowest paid

Lombardo advises students that book publishing salaries are “not that great” when entering the field, but unionizing is one of the only chances to reach a settlement.

“I teach students they can’t negotiate on an individual basis, especially with large corporations,” he said. “Look after your individual interests by also looking after the collective interest of your coworkers.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, sales in bookstores and at publishing companies across the country have taken a blow. Now, Lombardo said, there is a greater emphasis on workers in the publishing industry to organize. 

According to a statement from the HarperCollins union, one of the main demands from employees is to raise the minimum salary from $45,000 to $50,000 as the company reported record profits in 2021. Employees said that this is because they are expected to work in New York City, where the cost of living is high.

The HarperCollins strike drew support from Emerson students, spurring an uptick in interest to unionize. 

“I support those who are striking. They deserve better wages and working conditions,” said Kate Rispoli, a junior writing, literature, and publishing major with a concentration in publishing. “The publishing industry is incredibly not diverse and those who work hard in that industry do not get the credit that they deserve.”

A recent report from PEN America found the publishing industry is disproportionately white. According to the report, 74% of employees at Penguin Random House—one of the ‘Big Five’ publishing houses—were white, while 65% of employees at Hachette—another publishing mogul—were white. HarperCollins employees now demand more diversity within their staff pool and feel low wages makes it difficult to diversify the industry. 

“The publishing industry just started to scratch the surface of dealing with diversity issues, and there needs to be a great deal of rethinking and soul searching there,” Lombardo said. 

Rispoli, who wants to be an acquisitions editor, said she would likely join a union upon graduation, as did Lydia Prendergast, a junior creative writing major who hopes to work as a writer within the publishing industry.

“I would most definitely try to join a union,” Prendergast said. “We shouldn’t have to fight for financial and workplace security, but unfortunately, in our current world, we have to play the cards we’re dealt.” 

Prendergast said it’s disheartening to witness the commonality of strikes against large corporations because of lack of liveable wages, but the chance of widespread industry change is inspirational.

“It’s also a double-edged sword, in a way, because it is inspiring to see so many workers come together to fight for their rights,” she said. “Big companies … have gotten away with denying their workers fair wages and not hiring diverse staff for far too long.” 

The outcome of the strike and the success of the HarperCollins workers remains uncertain, Lombardo said, but there is still hope that a compromise can be made. 

“The company has the power to pay people better if they want to,” he said. “HarperCollins can’t afford an extended strike. They have books to get out.”

Among those who will be inconvenienced by the strike are authors on contract with the company. Without workers, Lombardo said, books are stalled, and these writers will most likely be sympathetic to workers on strike. 

Lombardo said a potential effect of the strike—if it continues—is for the company to hire workers who cross the picket line, or “strikebreakers” who take the strikers’ jobs. This would undermine the legitimacy of recruiting professionals for the workplace, Lombardo added. 

“Publishing is not unskilled labor,” he said. “This is professional work and you can’t just hire anybody off the street. It’s a measure they can’t find temporary employment.”