New York, N.Y. – A chant of “passion doesn’t pay the rent” resounded off the concrete walls of Lower Manhattan, as workers at the HarperCollins publishing company picketed outside its offices during a one-day strike July 20, some 100 people walking in 91° heat.
Their union, Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, represents 250 employees in the company’s editorial, sales, publicity, design, legal, and marketing departments. They are seeking a contract with “fair wages, diversity language, and union security,” shop steward Stephanie Guerdan told LaborPress.
HarperCollins workers start at $45,000 a year and the average salary is $55,000, says new Local 2110 president Olga Brudastova. Given New York City rents, “that’s not a living wage,” says Guerdan. “You really have to have generational wealth to work in publishing.”
Publishing has traditionally been a low-paying professional sector. That’s partly because workers have long been mostly women and partly because of the attitude, common in creative fields, that if people are passionate about their work, they shouldn’t kvetch about not getting a lot of money for it.
“We have to pay rent and we have to buy food,” says Brudastova. One striker who’s worked in publishing for 35 years told LaborPress that the rent for her Queens apartment costs more than half her take-home pay.
Another issue is “salary compression,” that workers don’t get significant raises when they get promoted, says Guerdan, an associate editor for children’s books who started as an editorial assistant five years ago. There are also a lot of expectations that they’ll do unpaid overtime, she adds, and when people began working remotely during the pandemic, the company only gave two small stipends to help them upgrade their home computer systems to handle large files such as page proofs of illustrated children’s books.
HarperCollins is the only U.S. publishing house with a union. It was organized in 1942. But when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired the company in 1987, it refused to bargain unless the union agreed to an open shop. One of Local 2110’s demands is restoring the union shop.
“It will cost the employer nothing to give us union security, a union shop,” says Brudastova. “It’s a union-busting technique.”
The current negotiations with HarperCollins management began last December. A one-year pandemic extension of the previous contract expired in April — and in late June, workers voted almost unanimously to authorize a one-day strike.
There has been some progress, Brudastova says, as management withdrew proposals for givebacks, but “what they have on the table is inadequate.”
“We’re ready to come back to the table,” says Guerdan, but they haven’t heard from management since the strike-authorization vote.
A company spokesperson declined to comment. “We do not comment on negotiations,” they said. “Our hope is to continue our discussions at the negotiating table.”
HarperCollins calls itself the second-largest consumer book publisher in the world, putting out approximately 10,000 new books every year in in 17 countries. Founded in 1817, it was acquired by Murdoch in 1987, and merged with the British publisher William Collins & Sons in 1990.
In the 2020-21 fiscal year, the company reported revenue of $1.98 billion, $319 million more than the previous year. Its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization were $303 million, up 42%. Profits declined by 16% in the first quarter of this year, to $67 million for the quarter, but revenues rose to $515 million, $25 million above the previous quarter.
One picketer’s sign riffed on Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, which HarperCollins publishes. “Where the Wild Things Are Underpaid,” it read, with drawings of Max’s little sailboat and one of the monsters he encounters.
Former Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein told the crowd that it was “an amazing and historic strike,” radical because “publishing workers, mostly women,” had formed a union.
“In the last couple years, people have begun to realize the power of the union,” says Guerdan.
“We’re here because we love publishing and we love what we do,” she adds. “We love each other and we want things to be better for everyone.”