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labor What the Hard-Won HarperCollins Union Contract Means for the Future of Books

“I’m feeling in shock, to be honest. It hasn’t quite hit me yet and I don’t think I’ll fully believe it until we’ve ratified,” And until I’ve hugged and cried in joy with my fellow strikers. But excited and nervous to get back to work! And to see the ripples this has across the industry.” Almost 250 workers had been on strike for 66 days.

Union members at HarperCollins picketing in New York,(Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

On Thursday night, HarperCollins announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with its union for a new contract. The news was a long time coming: It arrived only after the union’s nearly 250 members were on strike for 66 days.

Among the so-called Big Five houses that dominate trade publishing in the US, HarperCollins is an oddity: the only publishing house to be unionized. The union, which comprises roughly 250 assistant and associate-level employees across the company, dates back to the 1940s, when it was established at what was then Harper & Row. In the 80 years since, it has lasted through multiple mergers and acquisitions and consolidations to live on in the enormous modern corporation that is HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corps and now America’s second-largest trade publisher. In the 1980s, the union joined forces with the United Auto Workers Union for more resources, and now, says union chairperson Laura Harshberger, it survives “through sheer force of will.”

For the past few decades, the union and the management have managed to negotiate with minimal strife. The last HarperCollins strike was in 1976, and it lasted for two and a half weeks. This year was different. This negotiation comes in the midst of a larger industry battle over what publishing should look like.

Publishing as an industry is 76 percent white, and its notoriously low starting salaries are part of what keeps it that way. In turn, its monolithic whiteness affects the kinds of stories publishing houses choose to invest in, a correlation that became an embarrassment during the American Dirt controversy of 2020. Publishing’s younger and more leftist workers feel that it’s time for a structural upheaval — and the HarperCollins union wanted to make it happen.

At the same time, publishing is in the midst of one of its perpetual financial crunches. The great surge in demand for books that began in the dead of lockdown has begun to ebb, and revenue has gone down with it. The supply chain is in chaos, making it ever more expensive to publish books. In the last half of 2022, HarperCollins’s profits were down $102 million. This was no time, management felt, to make big, expensive changes.

I stopped by the union’s picket line in New York’s Financial District on the 60th day of the strike. It was bitterly cold, barely in the 30s. Still, about a dozen picketers shivered outside the grand glass-and-bronze doors of the HarperCollins office, wrapped in coats and blankets and hunched over cups of Dunkin’ coffee. They’d been on strike since November 10, 2022. For 60 of those days — every day that HarperCollins was open for business — they’d been picketing.

“We have been outside for the past 60 days, walking in the same circle over and over and over again as it gets continuously colder, while management crosses our picket line,” said Genessee Floressantos, an associate publicist for the international sales department at HarperCollins and a strike picket captain for the union. “They don’t see us as individuals. They think that we’re going to give up. They don’t understand.”

In December 2021, union leadership began negotiating with HarperCollins for a new contract. The union wanted the floor for their salaries raised from $45,000 to $50,000 (still below the $56,718 the Economic Policy Institute estimates to be a living wage for a single adult in New York City). They wanted initiatives to increase diversity at HarperCollins. And they wanted a union security clause, which would make it easier for new hires to opt into the union.

No, said HarperCollins. They’d already raised their minimum wage by 25 percent in the last contract. They were willing to raise it again, but not by that much. And a union security clause would mean dues would automatically be subtracted from members’ paychecks, which, the company maintained, should be each employee’s individual choice.

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In April, the union’s old contract expired, and there was still no new contract on the table. In November, the union members walked out of the office. They issued a statement asking agents to stop submitting to HarperCollins, and reviewers to stop reviewing HarperCollins books. The strike lasted through Thanksgiving, through Christmas, and through the new year, with no paychecks going to the striking workers.

Instead, they made do on money from the strike fund and unemployment benefits. “It kind of balances out,” said Cassidy Miller, a rights associate for the HarperCollins children’s department and picket captain for the union. “It doesn’t quite match my paycheck.” The union hardship fund helped when the price of eggs skyrocketed, she said.

Many of the striking workers, though, are used to living on low wages. When Miller got her first job as a sales assistant at HarperCollins rival Macmillan in 2018, she was paid $33,000 a year. “I didn’t negotiate because I didn’t think I could,” she says.

Six months after she started, Macmillan raised its starting wage to $35,000. “I was so thrilled; I remember being so grateful. Oh my god, $2,000 more a year,” she says. “And now I feel like, after actually trying to live on that for years now, it’s just not sustainable. It affects the way you live your life.”

When she started in publishing, Miller made her salary work by sharing an apartment in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood with four other roommates. Now, she lives with her partner in Central Jersey. “I commute an hour and a half to get here,” she says. (During non-strike times, HarperCollins requires employees to work from the office at least two days per week.) “And it still feels worth it to work in this industry.”

That’s the general refrain from those on the picket line: Wages are too low in publishing, but the workers still love it there.

“If I had started my career at $50,000, I would be in maybe half as much credit card debt,” says Rachel Kambury, an associate editor at Harper Wave and Harper Business. “My living situation would have been very different a long time ago. I would not have undergone certain traumas that I went through.” But it’s worth it, she says, for her colleagues. “The people are amazing. They’re smart, they’re dedicated, fiercely loyal, and they care about what books are and what they can do for people, and what they can represent.”

“I definitely grew up with books. I grew up going to the library. I grew up escaping in them,” says Floressantos. “I love books, but books don’t love me.”

Floressantos describes not just low wages but also microaggressions like co-workers and bosses mispronouncing her name. She doesn’t think those incidents are isolated.

“I’ve seen about 15 women of color leave the company and I’ve only been here for a year and a half. That’s about one a month,” she says. “The company likes to pat themselves on the back and say that in the last fiscal year, 80 percent of their new hires were from marginalized communities. To that I always ask, ‘Well, what are your retention statistics?’ They refuse to share.” None of the Big Five houses share retention statistics broken out by demographic in their DEI reports.

By and large, the book industry was supportive of the strike. The Authors Guild has issued a statement of solidarity with the union, and more than 500 authors — including multiple big-name HarperCollins authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Jacqueline Woodson — signed a letter supporting the union. Many bloggers and reviewers committed not to review HarperCollins books during the strike, and dozens of literary agents signed an open letter pledging not to submit new manuscripts to HarperCollins during the strike.

Chelsea Hensley, the literary agent who put the letter together, said she thinks meeting the union’s demands would make the industry healthier. “People will be able to stay and rise in the industry. This past year alone, turnover has been wild. And that’s really disheartening,” she says. “The reason those people leave is they’re not getting paid enough, they’re not advancing fast enough, and they decide it’s no longer worth the effort. I think it’s in the interest of everybody for publishing to step up and step forward. On a basic level, just compensate people better. That is the start of resolving a lot of these issues.”

For authors whose books came out this season, the strike has had a real financial impact. “I have been explicitly told by press outlets that I had interviews lined up with that they couldn’t speak with me because they had put a freeze on all Harper coverage,” says Jeanna Kadlec, whose memoir Heretic published with Harper in October. “Beyond that, the ‘no reviews’ policy has rippled across Bookstagram and BookTok, impacting word of mouth and the extent to which folks even share what Harper books they’re reading. A lack of organic buzz negatively impacts sales, especially for books that are already not being promoted by the house.”

Kadlec supports the union and the strike, and has written multiple emails saying so to HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray. “I feel a great responsibility to the overworked, underpaid publishing employees who put our books into the hands of the reading public,” she says. “I feel especially loyal to the team I worked with, most of whom are striking. Where they go, I go, and if they say to strike, that’s what we do.”

Still, she has concerns about how the strike affected new HarperCollins books, especially those from the queer community. “LGBQIA+ authors are systemically disadvantaged in this industry: our books are published less, and we historically get significantly lower advances, on average,” she wrote in an email to Vox. “The result is that our marketing budgets are lower, too, and it’s harder to muster in-house support for the book. Publishers are especially cagey right now with book bans on the rise. Throw a strike and a ‘no review’ policy on top of all that and it’s a brutal set-up for authors who had to fight to sit at the table in the first place.”

As she waited for the strike to come to an end, she said, “We can still pre-order Harper books by queer authors and donate to the union’s strike fund.”

On January 26, HarperCollins management agreed to enter federal mediation with the union. Five days later, it announced that it would be laying off 5 percent of its workforce. A HarperCollins spokesperson attributed the layoffs to supply chain pressures and declining revenue, saying, “The timing had nothing to do with mediation.”

Because HarperCollins is the only union shop among the Big Five, the stakes here are high. It is pushed by necessity to set the labor standards for the rest of the industry: when it raises its wages, Penguin Random House raises its wages too. The hope among supporters both in and out of the union was that the new agreement would spark similar structural changes at the other Big Five houses, and maybe even inspire other houses to unionize.

Finally, at 8 pm on February 9, the union and HarperCollins together announced they had reached a tentative agreement. “The tentative agreement includes increases to minimum salaries across levels throughout the term of the agreement, as well as a one-time $1,500 lump sum bonus to be paid to bargaining unit employees following ratification,” said HarperCollins in a statement. Currently, there’s no word on whether the union also succeeded in bringing in new diversity initiatives or in getting a union security clause. The contract doesn’t become official until it’s ratified.

“I’m feeling in shock, to be honest. It hasn’t quite hit me yet and I don’t think I’ll fully believe it until we’ve ratified,” says Miller. “And until I’ve hugged and cried in joy with my fellow strikers. But excited and nervous to get back to work! And to see the ripples this has across the industry.”

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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