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I first moved to New York for a job at Penguin Random House in March of 2016 with a newly minted Masters degree in English literature that I deeply loved and knew I would never use professionally. My first apartment was in Jersey City with two roommates I didn’t know, but my sister, two close friends, a farmer’s market, and (at a stretch) a train station were within walking distance. If one of those roommates, it turns out, thought I was a thief who was bugging our living room, well, everyone has a crazy roommate story, and over the summer the farmer’s market had outdoor yoga so it evened out. Plus, I was making $35,500 a year and I had student loans and credit card debt so my options were limited.
Since then I’ve been able to upgrade a bit. I’ve gotten closer and closer to a train station with each apartment. My roommates are no longer strangers, but my sister and one of my very best friends. With the minimum salaries in the publishing industry going up about $10k in that time, and some regulation changes around exempt vs. non-exempt, my salary has jumped a couple of times. I’ve never been promoted but I’ve been invited to apply to new positions on my same team, and each of those has come with a title bump and a little bit more money. I’m up to $67,000/year, a salary that looked impossibly huge to the bright eyed 27 year old who moved here, but between Taylor Swift tickets, some bougie take out, and my payment plan for our family’s Christmas vacation I’m going to bottom out this paycheck again.
I’m honestly quite lucky. In the grand scheme of things, $67k is quite a lot of money. Certainly well above the poverty line and I’m pretty comfortable. But I can’t conceive of when, in the future, I might be able to live by myself. I’d like to get a pet, but I’m a bit afraid of the cost. Things are going to get a bit tighter when student loan payments start up again.
Publishing is a notoriously underpaid industry. Whether that’s because it’s a industry dominated by women or because it’s become a passion industry you don’t get into for the money, or because of market forces and corporate consolidation unrelated to the books themselves, who knows. But I’m pretty sure that if I were selling almost anything else I could make almost twice as much money.
My sister works for HarperCollins, a public publishing company owned by Rupert Murdoch, and is the second largest publisher and the only big one that’s unionized. They’ve been a part of United Auto Workers for 80 years, because the union covers skilled labor like production and support. She’s a Senior Sales Support Associate who makes around $55,000 a year and, like most of her coworkers, she really loves her job. Only she can’t do it right now.
After eleven months of failed contract negotiations, members of the HarperCollins Union voted to go on indefinite strike. The union is pushing for higher pay, greater investment in DE&I work, and union protections. The total payroll increase they are asking for is less than the amount HC paid as advance for Jared Kushner’s book.
You can read a lot more about this specific union fight here, and you can (and should) get a lot more from the union by following them on Instagram and Twitter (assuming when I hit send on this we still have twitter). The union at HarperCollins is fighting a specific fight for their quality of life at work, and they deserve to be heard. But the ripples of this fight reach far beyond HarperCollins, with implications for the publishing industry, for books themselves, for labor movements, and for democracy. And as you might have guessed, with a newsletter called “How to Save Democracy, and other stories” that intersection is where I live.
Books (like a lot of art) sit at a particularly strange nexus between capitalism and culture. The people who make books, in a lot of cases, love their jobs because they love stories, because they want to put stories that entertain and inform into the hands of readers. Books are not some panacea, a magic pill for a better world - there are too many Jared Kushners and Amy Coney Barrets out here getting published for that. But they are so often a window into another life, another place, another time, or a mirror in which we can see ourselves when across the world so many stories are smoothed over or erased. And most of the people who make books, from the writers to the designers to the editors and marketers and salespeople, love their jobs and believe deeply in their power
But it’s still a business, and businesses need to make a profit, and that profit (apparently) needs to grow over time. These businesses are staffed by employees who need health care and salaries and glasses and teeth implants and retirement accounts. And they are part of a world gripped by institutional racism and bigotry, beset by wage stagnation and weak to corporate consolidation, moved and moving the same political forces with the power to regulate them. Every day we hear about how inflation is making our costs go up - gas prices, transportation, the cost of paper - it all makes making books more expensive. But none of those costs seem to include the grocery bills and glasses and health care of the people making the books.
The point of unions is to force businesses to factor employees into those costs. Unions give power to employees who depend on their employers not just for their salaries, but for their health care and their retirement savings. In an economic system where corporations take on these burdens instead of the government, unions are an extension of our democracy, fighting for the protections and benefits we are due. And in a political system where corporations are considered people for the purposes of free speech, these fights and the unions that lead them become even more essential as corporations have free reign to advocate for their profit margins at the expense of the wellbeing of their employees. Unions act as a counterweight to the incredible power that money bestows upon the rich, whose wealth buys them ease of access and influence that the rest of us do not have the time, energy, or resources for. And that makes them an absolutely essential force for democracy.
Democracy is not merely a function of our actions at the voting booth. It’s not just Election Day every couple of years. Democracy is threaded through every facet of our lives, from buying Taylor Swift tickets to where we build our grocery stories and our schools, to our health care and our salaries, and our futures. In an economic system where it is all too easy for one person or one corporation to gain and abuse power over others, democracy is our never ending fight to right the balance, to weed out the corruption and bigotry that oppresses some and raises others. Voting is one way we do that, but there are so many other opportunities to fight for each other and to build a future where we can all thrive.
I have been a voracious reader my whole life, and I believe deeply in the power of stories, for good or for ill. Stories are the way we make sense of the world, the way we understand ourselves and our places in it. And the stories we tell ourselves about our country, about what we can and cannot do for each other, who we can and cannot fight for, what we can and cannot change, have the power to determine that future.
The people who make our books want to be able to afford their own apartments when they are in their mid-30s. They’d like to get pets and takeout and buy the clothes in their Old Navy cart. They’d like to pay down their credit card limit and pay off their student loans. They want much the same things that everyone wants - to do a job that they like and in doing so earn enough money to live a life they like. And the HCP Union strike won’t just help HarperCollins employees, though that’s important enough in and of itself. It will help publishing employees across the industry, and workers everywhere in that fight. They aren’t asking for a lot - just that an industry that is so influential in sharing and shaping our lives with stories ensures that those stories are made by people who are paid fairly. They want a company that more accurately resembles the world it is reflecting, and that invests in diversity and inclusion, that supports people who aren’t just white or straight or wealthy in making books that aren’t just white, or straight, or wealthy. And they want the union protections that will allow them to keep fighting this fight long into the future. The same things we all want.
If you’d like to support the HarperCollins Union, you can find a ton of information here.