Why Organizing Workers in the Book Industry Is So Damn Hard

From Jacobin:

Workers in the book industry often suffer poor conditions and low pay, but are supposed to feel grateful for the privilege of working near books. Casting off such illusions is the first step to organizing publishers and booksellers, and fighting the exploitation that thrives in the hallowed culture industry.

. . . .

As book industry workers around the world experience destabilizing changes to their employment because of COVID-19, we’re reminded of how fragile workers’ rights can be in industries that are yet to properly organize. In Australia, when book industry workers need collective action more than ever, organizing even the smallest workplaces has proven difficult.

Compared to other creative or retail industries, union membership in the book industry has been slow, with the lack of union support placing workers in vulnerable positions. But why is organizing the book industry such hard work?

Along with the suppression and stigmatization of unions in the book industry, one of the steepest barriers to organizing is the myth of “doing it for the love of books,” which employers perpetuate to create the illusion that publishing workers are somehow exempt from the inherent exploitation of wage labor. Add to this the exclusivity of jobs in publishing and bookselling, and you’ve got yourself a submissive workforce that is largely averse to rocking the boat.

. . . .

In 2019, Penguin Random House (PRH) achieved the first union-negotiated enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) in publishing, facilitated by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), while in 2018, workers at bookshops across Melbourne successfully won a landmark protection of penalty rates and higher health and safety standards through the new but militant Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU).

As union delegates in these cases, we learned firsthand what the barriers to unionizing the book industry look like, and how they might be overcome.

. . . .

Wage stagnation nonetheless reflects the relative weakness of the modern union movement which is especially pronounced in the publishing industry where salary secrecy is rampant and wage theft obscured.

Meanwhile, bookshop workers are subject to the same issues of wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and precarity as their comrades in other retail work. Some Melbourne bookshop workers are among a group of retail, fast food, and hospitality workers who recently won protection of their penalty rates — despite a 2017 ruling by the Fair Work Commission allowing employers to reduce them — and this was only achieved because they unionized.

. . . .

At PRH, management actively repressed past efforts to organize, fostering a culture of secrecy that left staff feeling understandably anxious about criticizing workplace culture because of fear of retribution.

As Australian writer and book editor Samantha Forge wrote in 2018, “There is a sense among well-meaning, book-loving publishing workers that to ask for more, collectively, would be to imperil literary culture itself.” This atmosphere holds back discussion about the actual issues workers are facing.

Because organizing itself is considered so taboo, workers trying to build a movement are often stuck making the most elementary argument: that a union is necessary or helpful at all.

. . . .

We found that one simple but powerful method for overcoming this was to privately ask our comrades at work to describe their frustrations in their own words. At PRH, staff had made repeated requests for increased wages and paid overtime, using all the “appropriate” channels, but were stonewalled.

After inviting colleagues to speak openly about their conditions, delegates could then point to union action as the next reasonable and effective avenue for making improvements. Hardie Grant likewise refused workers’ demands for negotiations and set up a “suggestion box” instead — which members flooded with suggestions that management come to the table.

The same dynamic was apparent in bookshops, where we had to rapidly educate ourselves — and, very often, management — about our legal rights. To our knowledge, no Australian bookshop has successfully organized and negotiated an EBA with a union. The book industry has little literacy about how organized labor interacts with management, which can cause initial confusion about which union to join, what to expect, or how formal negotiations work.

. . . .

Perhaps the most persistent canard in the book trade — and one of the biggest obstacles to organization — is the idea that the work itself is pleasurable enough to justify low wages and precarity.

Bookshops in particular glamorize themselves and present shop work as something other than the alienated labor it truly is. Anyone who has worked in a bookshop can attest to the typical comments made by customers about how they would love to spend “all day reading.”

As James Daunt — the millionaire CEO of Daunt Books, Waterstones, and now Barnes and Noble — said last year, in response to the campaign waged by Waterstones’s staff for a real living wage, “To retain the best and most talented booksellers, we have to reward them, and we reward them as well as we can with pay, but we mainly reward them with a stimulating job.”

This is not to overstate the difficulty of bookshop work compared to any other kind of shop work — but rather to stress that it is just that: shop work, requiring the worker to sort, shelve, and sell products.

Daunt’s attitude is emblematic of the ideological mystification employed in the culture industry to disguise this fact. In the words of one former Waterstones employee, the fact that “many staff members didn’t put themselves in the same category as McDonalds staff or Tesco checkout assistants” undermined their last attempt at unionizing.

Link to the rest at Jacobin

Once again, a reason for right-minded people to avoid physical bookstores altogether.

14 thoughts on “Why Organizing Workers in the Book Industry Is So Damn Hard”

  1. Leaving aside the Jacobins’ charged words and agenda, book selling of all kinds and all channels is a business with:

    – low margins
    – high fixed costs
    – low sell-through

    This requires high volume of sales and/or near zero incremental retail costs.
    B&M offers neither.

    My heart goes out to the folks engage in that business but I doubt it is any worse than livery workers in the waning days of the horse and buggy.

    For all their high minded proseletizing, the Jacobins are adhering to the same flawed premise as the storefront personnel, the idea tbat they are entitled to a high standard of living while engaging in that particular business, regardless of its economic merits. They castigate the owners as if they are the reason customers don’t magically appear showering the employees with money and a comfortable professional-class lifestyle when the reality if the owners are most often in an even more precarious financial state; employees are guaranteed a salary and some legally-mandated benefits, whereas owners aren’t guaranteed a profit or any revenues at all.

    I’m pretty sure no amount of union power (or minimum wage hikes) is going to change that core reality. Not that the OP source is likely to accept that. A bit like flat earthers that way.

    The willfully ignored fact is that even before the lockdowns, B&M bookselling had become a specialty, niche business hostile to the small generic storefront depending on everywhere books that the OP targets. Even B&N and the other remaining chains.

    “Stock it and they will come” is no longer enough of an incentive to support viable customer traffic. The evolving reality seems to be calling for either a massive catalog within easy reach of millions of warm bodies, with room for maybe a dozen or two properly chosen locations, or alternately, a tightly run, highly focused hyperlocal specialty shop backed by a sophisticated online presence. Those there is room for maybe a hundred or so in tbe US depending on focus and location. (One could envision a shop specializing in Jacobin-recommended treatises doing quite well in Oberlin, though less so in Purdue’s West Lafayette or outside MIT. Not sure about Australia.)

    In the end, the OP’s title completely glosses the harsh truth that while there is good money in pbooks, there isn’t enough money to feed all the middlemen between creator and reader. By the time everybody in the distribution change has taken their cut there is precise little for retailers and their staff. Amazon succeeds in pbooks by eliminating two of the steps, the distributor (by buying direct) and the counter personnel via software. The former is not an option for most retailers, the latter practiced well by very few, even after 25 years.

    B&M bookselling like the focus of the OP is stuck in 19th century economic thinking which is ironically inline with the early 19th political thinking of the Jacobins.

    Unfortunately, the world outside is living in the 21st and setting down early seeds for the 22nd.

    Dated thinking applied to a dated business model.
    Says more about them than about modern publishing.

  2. Go for it. I’d love to see an organizing campaign in a declining market. It would be even more fun to watch reactions from a union shop when the successfully organized publisher announces a move to Wichita.

    • It’s not the skill, it’s the cost to do business without it. When technology advances, the people with the most skill in the old technology are generally the first to go. The same economic forces that made those skills profitable made it even more profitable to find a way to automate them.

      Most of the jobs I have done in my life no longer exist for that reason—and probably half of them did not exist when I started working. They went from the unimagined future to the unlamented past in a single generation.

      • Not much demand for pick-n-shovel ditch diggers today, is there?
        Certainly not for doing tunnels.
        Today’s John Henry is doing other things; maybe remotely controlling a giant tunnel digging machine instead of showing how tough he is, doing it by hand.

        I wonder how many people get the true moral of *that* story.

        • The brute-force heavy labour jobs were automated a hundred years ago. If you want to know who is losing work to automation today, forget about John Henry and listen to some of the people who are going through it.

          • Oh, I know.
            That’s just the luddites’s mythical hero.
            “He beat the machine!”
            Even a hundred fifty years later they hold him up as an exemplar of “self-reliance”. Yeah, right.

            And yes, all kinds of jobs are on the chopping block. But how the jobs evolve will vary in timing and method. And repercusions.

            The next wave of jobs to disappear are warehouse workers, truck drivers, and fruit pickers. Not long after that, slaughterhouse workers.

            There’s still a lot of “strong back” and endurance-based manual labor jobs that are going to go away this decade. Some of them will go away the “right way”, like long distance truckers becoming drone convoy monitors but a lot of them will go away for good. In a lot of business the recurring human costs are becoming uneconomic and ripe for displacement by capital investment. Other jobs, especially in the white collar categories will go away quietly via synchronized attrition and productivity boosts. What might have once required a handful of slipstick jockeys will now be done by one guy, part time. Depending on the job, the number of employees might even go up as the business expands its scope in the new era.

            (Back on the day job, decades ago, the boss at the time was actively looking to capture and automate the unit’s corporate knowledge and encapsulate it in software as an “engineer’s assistant” that would multiply each staffer’s productivity. The driver was the difficulty, which still remains, of finding enough competent engineers to meet the increasing needs of the unit’s skills. The software of the 80’s and 90’s wasn’t up to the vision, which today is still an ongoing effort, but the computing hardware was. We achieved a 10x boost early in my tenure by moving to high end hardware, then an extra 5x boost by progressively riding MOORE’S LAW into increasing cheaper hardware and increasingly sophisticated software tools. Trade studies that used to take my elders days or weeks because of the turnaround time on mainframes and supercomputers became a matter of minutes because the old codes became subroutines inside GUI-fronted analysis tools. Tweak the parameters, watch the output change in curves. You still needed to understand the processes involved but the machine now does the grunt work on the fly. And all this, without bringing in pattern matching Faux AI. Reaching the original vision is still a decade or more away but the ride has been awesome so far.)

            Software won’t actually replace knowledge workers because the demand grows faster than the supply but the newer tech can help them do their jobs faster and be more productive. Some of the stuff that the automated pattern matching software is taking on is astounding.

            (One of the more interesting examples is last year’s discovery of a fourth homo sapiens sub-species that lived in Africa, not via archaeology or anthropology but via genetics. A ghost heritage distinct from but contemporaneous to neanderthals, denisovans, and cro-magnon (us). No remains yet, but the genes are out there. They existed. And we probably killed them. 😉 )

            So yeah, it’s not just physical labor that will be impacted by automation of both physical and mental processes. But what will be changing is the nature of the work, not the need for workers. Good ones will always be in short supply, driving the need for further automation.

            Not that the luddites are likely to understand this anytime soon.
            They’re still fighting John Henry’s futile war.

            • They existed. And we probably killed them.

              I wouldn’t dispute any group gleefully engaging in killing another. But It’s also fun to consider that we may be them.

              • We’re a tribal species; everything reduces to either kin or enemy in the primal brain. By all accounts there have been maybe a half dozen sub-species of sapiens coexisting at recently as 50,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia. One remains.
                That’s very HIGHLANDER. 😉
                And not a hard case to prosecute in a galactic court, if one existed.

                Especially since the scouring practice continues unabated to this day.

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