Want to Change the Book Biz? Organize.

From Publishers Weekly:

In December, Verso Books’ management voluntarily recognized our union. After several years of informally organizing our workplace and seeing some successes, we realized that to make significant progress we would need formal representation, so we joined the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. We have identified our core issues and demands—closing the gender pay gap, job security, increasing staff leverage, and raising wages across the board—and intend to make them cornerstones of our collective bargaining process in 2021.

What we realized through talking to fellow book workers during this organizing process is that our situation is far from unique. In recent years, and in 2020 in particular, a series of decisions has underscored publishing’s already-shaky foundation and its wresting of power from workers into the hands of—quite literally—a powerful few. Here’s why we think other publishing workers should consider unionizing their workplaces, too.

Unions are an essential safeguard in an industry that benefits from workers being divided, and a union can help raise wages for its members as well as for nonmembers. With even a few medium to large publishers unionized, we could see salaries across the industry rise significantly as a result of competition to match union wages.

We believe we’re already seeing inspiring movement in this regard: after several publishers raised entry-level wages this year as a result of increased pressure to pay workers a living wage, the HarperCollins union is using this leverage to push for across-the-board raises for everyone in its bargaining unit as part of ongoing negotiations.

Furthermore, the publishing industry will only be able to recruit and retain workers from different backgrounds if it starts to offer living, sustainable wages to all employees. As we see it, there’s no future for publishing without a workforce that reflects the demographics of its readership, and unions are the best guarantor of the fair pay, dignified labor conditions, and meaningful opportunities for growth that can bring true diversity. If stipulated in a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), unions can help create leaders across various levels of a house by requiring employers to promote from within and abide by diversity clauses, producing opportunities for junior employees—a small but still significant percentage of whom are people of color—to actively shape the future of these companies.

For workers at small publishers, Penguin Random House’s recent announcement that it intends to buy Simon & Schuster for a whopping $2.175 billion was not a surprise. And while unions can’t prevent mergers, they can help with job security in the event of corporate restructuring or economic downturns like the one we saw in 2020. Introducing protective language into CBAs—such as seniority clauses, recall provisions, or even measures that would bar layoffs in lieu of other payroll-meeting measures—can provide a modicum of safety amid much uncertainty.

Publishing is not immune from the abuses that sometimes emerge when managers enjoy unaccountable power; it is not uncommon for junior workers to suffer verbal and sexual harassment by managers on and off the job. Unions can introduce meaningful measures to help workers resist abuse and, if necessary, fight back. In short, they reduce the authority of managers by tipping the balance of power in the workplace. And when workers have more power, we can act more boldly in everything we do.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG is quite skeptical about whether unionizing publishers will benefit authors. He suspects not.

8 thoughts on “Want to Change the Book Biz? Organize.”

  1. It probably won’t benefit the employees either.
    They work in a stagmant segment of a disrupted business run by parochial middle managets getting their marching orders from abroad. None of that suggests a willingness to seriously entertain meaningful change. Mostly because nothing the union demands is going to result in more lucre for the transatlantc overlords.

    It might however introduce an extra layer of tension and bureaucratic red tape to internal processes.

    • Just a few points off authors’ royalties would boost workers’ pay, close the gender gap, and a foster a “workforce that reflects the demographics of its readership.”

  2. This bunch used to be named New Left Books, and are owned by New Left review. The new name is Verso.

    So it took 50 years for a leftist publisher to recognize a union.

      • This is a wonderful sentence from the article. Hope it wasn’t written by an editor.

        ” the HarperCollins union is using this leverage to push for across-the-board raises for everyone in its bargaining unit as part of ongoing negotiations.”

  3. Here’s an interesting Verso Books title, straight from the front page of their site:

    How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire, by Andreas Malm

    I’m sure in the right hands such a book will be nothing but a force for positive change.


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