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Writer Wednesday: The Harper Collins Strike

Hello and welcome to the middle of the week. It's another #WriterWednesday, where we talk craft and industry. Today, we peeling back the curtain to talk about the why and wherefore of the Harper Collins Strike. With the flux state of news happening right now, this ongoing strike might have slipped through the cracks, but the union strike has been going four weeks strong, garnering support from a wide range of figures in the writing community from authors to agents. As of yesterday, December 6th, Harper Collins finally offered a first response to the strikers but we shall get to that. First a little back story.

Behind the Strike

Back in early November 2022, 250 workers from Harper Collins ranging from the design, marketing, publicity, and sales departments, set out on strike, represented by the UAW 2110. The United Auto Workers Union is a technical, office, and professional (TOP) amalgamated union that represents a wide range of professionals and aids in negotiations with large companies. The union had been in negotiations with Harper Collins since December 2021, with a breakdown in talks that led to employees working without contracts since April. What are workers asking for?

Higher wages, stronger commitments to diversifying staff and better family leave.

The ask for higher wages is rooted in minimum wage that no longer reflects the cost of living in New York City. The current average salary for Harper Collins employees is $55,000 with a minimum of $45,000, though other sources reported wages as low as $33,000. The yearly cost of living in NYC in pre pandemic 2019 averaged from 50k-100k, a number that has fluctuated drastically in the past three years. While employees were granted the ability to work from home due to the pandemic, they are still expected to commute into Manhattan once a week.

"What we're asking for is a fair wage," said Stephanie Guerdan, associate editor at HarperCollins Children's Books and shop steward at the HarperCollins Union.

The push for higher wages is two fold. As the president of UAW 2110 Olga Brudastova states: “We want to create a workplace that is more financially sustainable for employees and accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds." Traditional publishing has long had a reputation for low pay and being predominantly white.

All of this comes after Harper Collins, owned by Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp, reported record earnings in 2021, with a fiscal year nearing $2 Billion in sales.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

In support of the strike, workers asked the agent and freelance community to withhold new contracts from Harper Collins, but to continue working on existing contracts. The goal of the union is not to hurt authors, but to lift up the support structure behind them. One hundred and fifty agents signed an open letter of support, boycotting the publisher until an agreement is reached.

Harper Collins sent an email to employees a day before the strike that any worker who strikes will not be paid.

It is sometimes difficult for the reading community to support this sort of strike and the past month has seen some misguided boycotts from review bombing Harper Collins books to attempting to hurt them in sales, however, these tactics mostly hurt the authors, who have absolutely no control over corporate decisions. Those on strike do not want this because authors are also pushing diversity and fair wages. The Union has outlined many options for freelancers, booksellers, reviewers, librarians, and agents.

Yesterday, December 6th, Harper Collins president and C.E.O. Brian Murray broke silence with an open letter that framed the strike as a conflict with the UAW 2110. In the letter, Murray stated that the company shared in the desire to reach an agreement and had already taken strides to meet some of their demands. Since their last agreement with the union, Murray claimed HC “made deliberate and substantial increases to employee pay, raising entry-level salaries by 25% over approximately three years,” and had “higher than usual merit increases”. UAW 2110 is asking Harper Collins to commit to a minimum $50,000 salary base.

"All of these discretionary decisions were made independently of any demands by the United Auto Workers. Our current compensation offerings are consistent with our peers in the publishing industry. During recent negotiations, we proposed a fair and reasonable pay structure, including increases to entry-level salaries." -Brian Murray

Murray caps off his argument citing that based on publicly available information, the proposed compensation increases would provide a higher starting salary than any other major NY publisher. He also cited the benefits package for full time employees: "We offer a minimum of six and a half weeks paid time off for all full-time employees (increasing with tenure), four ‘work from anywhere’ weeks, overtime pay for those qualifying, and generous health and wellness benefits."

Murray's letter concluded that Harper Collins was with the entire industry, contending with the ongoing challenges present in published and its economics and that UAW has mischaracterized the strike on social media.

"In reality the company extended an offer to union leadership to meet again before the strike began but was not taken up on this offer. HarperCollins remains ready and willing to continue our negotiations with the United Auto Workers and to reach agreement on a contract that is fair to both employees and the company." -Brian Murray, President & C.E.O. Harper Collins

In response, Olga Brudastova stated "once again, Harper Collins attempted to third-party the Union and pick and choose numbers and facts to serve their argument that the strike is unjustified.” In their last exchange before a break down in negotiations, Harper Collins wholly rejected the union's proposal that addressed their demands and presented a clear path to a fair contract.

With this letter being the first clap back, this could be a long and dirty fight for the union, but if the community can put the heat on Harper Collins with the new contract boycott, that could be a much needed breaker. What does that mean for the current sub climate? Agents are still making deals, there are still a lot of houses and imprints looking for titles. Could a lengthy strike effect subs in the future? It's possible. But this strike had to happen. Pushing for diversity and living wages within the trad publishing space has been an ongoing battles for decades and the end results could be a tipping point. What happens next as the strike draws on remains to be seen and change starts from the pavement up.

Resources & Further Reading

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