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HarperCollins workers have spent more than 50 days on strike. Is it working?


More than 200 workers at one of the largest publishing companies in the country have been on strike for months now. Striking workers at HarperCollins Publishing held a rally last week at the steps of News Corp, the publisher's parent company, and plan to stay out longer. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When do we want it?


ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: It's been kind of rainy and dreary in New York City lately. But on Wednesday, the sun was out as crowds of people rallied outside of News Corp's corporate offices in support of the HarperCollins union workers.

PARRISH TURNER: We're a little tired, but morale is still quite high.

LIMBONG: Parrish Turner is an editorial assistant at HarperCollins. The striking workers have spent these past 50 business days sending a rotating group of people over to picket at the HarperCollins office. For Turner, it's been an exhausting but invigorating experience.

TURNER: Historically, when I've hung out with other publishing people, it tends to be very, like, our industry is so bad. And it's just them complaining about work. When we're gathering, we're actively working to make publishing a better place.

LIMBONG: The HarperCollins union has been on strike since mid-November, but they'd been working without a contract since April. The major asks from the union are, one, stronger union protections, two, more support for diverse employees and three, higher wages, particularly for folks at the bottom tier who the union wants to see get paid at least 50,000 a year. HarperCollins declined to offer anyone up for an interview, but sent a statement saying they've negotiated in good faith with the union for more than a year. But, quote, "unfortunately, union leadership continues to push far-reaching demands rather than working together to come to a fair and reasonable agreement for both sides," though workers and union leaders I talked to said they haven't heard from management since the strike began.

ERIC BLANC: This is a sign that employers feel like they don't have to come to the table.

LIMBONG: Eric Blanc is an assistant professor of labor studies at Rutgers University.

BLANC: When you're up against such a powerful boss who remains dead set in trying to prevent workers from winning their demands, it's going to come to the broader labor movement, the broader public and politicians to put their weight to bear.

CHELSEA HENSLEY: The longer it goes, the more people would like to see it resolved and resolved in the union's favor.

LIMBONG: Chelsea Hensley is a literary agent at KT Literary. Agents are the people who take new books from authors and sell them to publishers. And Hensley helped organize an open letter of other literary agents supporting the union, stating they wouldn't be sending any new projects to HarperCollins beyond those already under contract until an agreement is reached. More than 200 signed.

HENSLEY: I myself have four submissions that were going out this month that Harper's not getting. If you do that math, that's hundreds of submissions that Harper's not getting that their competitors are getting.

LIMBONG: Speaking of competitors and the publishing game, there are only a handful of other big companies making up the so-called Big Five publishing houses. Of these, HarperCollins is the only one with a union. According to Blanc, the labor professor, it's a remnant of the white-collar organizing wave of the 1940s that hit a dead end with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other things, expelled radicals from union leadership positions.

BLANC: The white-collar union movement really didn't survive in most places. And what's anomalous is the HarperCollins union did survive and lived to see an uptick in the 1970s and then particularly in the last recent years, a more major uptick. But that hasn't yet spread to the other four of the Big Five publishing companies.

LIMBONG: But if the HarperCollins union gets the wages and protections they're asking for, it could set a higher standard for the rest of the publishing industry going forward, even if they're not unionized. It's an uphill climb, though. The striking workers have been without a paycheck for months now, but they're already planning another big rally in February.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.