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.
While we write from the experience of book workers in office positions, unionizing will also help warehouse workers. At Amazon, the publishing industry’s biggest retailer, unionizing could have ripple effects, helping to curb the ruthless exploitation that gives the company the cost advantages that allow it to maintain a choke hold on publishers.
All told, a unionized publishing industry could help change the balance of power and create the conditions for the changes we all want to see: editorial and staff diversity, a living wage, democratic decision making, and the ability to develop our talents—all of which directly improve both our conditions of work and the quality of the ideas and stories we help shape. Is it a panacea for the issues we face? No. Unions will not remove the profit motive from publishing, or produce the sort of state support we need to insulate media from market pressures that skew our output toward certain commercial and political interests. But unions can create a powerful new force within the industry—one with an understanding about the dynamics that debase our work—and provide the power to push things in a different direction.
Julia Judge is a senior publicist, Natascha Elena Uhlmann is a senior publicity specialist, Ben Mabie is an editor at Verso.