At 9:00 a.m. on a day expected to reach a heat index of 99˚F, roughly 100 HarperCollins union workers and others were already on the picket line for the first time in decades in front of the publisher's headquarters in Manhattan's Financial District. The union is seeking higher pay, improved family leave benefits, a greater commitment to diversifying staff, and stronger union protection.
In front of 195 Broadway, where HC keeps its offices, union chants rang out, amplified by a block lined with tall, sheer buildings that also helped to keep the marchers in the shade. Down the block, at the entrance to the Cortlandt St. subway station, HarperCollins union reps watched a stash of signs and water to hand out to protestors throughout the day and passed out flyers to passersby.
"It's really devastating that the workers' contribution to the financial success of the institution is not acknowledged in their salaries," said Olga Brudastova, president-elect of Local 2110 United Auto Workers, which represents HC union workers. "We've been arguing since December. We know that HarperCollins reported record-breaking profits in the past three years. We're asking for a decent wage that allows people to exist in a city like New York."
Brudastova said that, over the past eight months, the union has made some progress—after gathering more than 2,000 signatures from HC union workers and other supporters, including such authors as Neil Gaiman, "our petition brought them back to the table, because for a while, they weren't scheduling sessions with us. But unfortunately," she said, "we had to escalate." Part off that escalation was to hold today's one-day strike.
Rachel Kambury, an associate editor at HarperCollins editing nonfiction books at Harper Wave and Harper Business, summed up the reasons for the strike even more succinctly: "I would be so much better at my job if I didn't have to worry about money."
Striking workers are not getting paid for the day, confirmed Laura Harshberger, a senior production editor in children’s books and union chairperson. The union workers had long since set up the infrastructure to start a strike fund, assuming they would be docked pay for the strike day, but "we didn't go live until yesterday because, on Monday afternoon, every manager got an email from HR, letting them know that for anybody who didn't come to work on Wednesday, it would be an unpaid day off and it would be the managers' responsibility to make sure that was reflected in the time sheets."
Reflecting how rare an occurrence this is for the publisher, some managers, who "don't really understand the union," Harshberger said, even told employees to request PTO for the day, despite the HR memo. "Some of them were like, 'Oh, I heard that if you take a PTO day, you get paid, so you can just do that,'" she said. "So we had to remind everybody: this is not paid time off, you're not putting anything in your time sheet. That's your manager's responsibility." At that point, she said, workers got "nervous" about lost wages, but Harshberger expects that the strike fund will "be able to provide at least $150 to cover lost wages to every employee who needs it."
HarperCollins does not comment on negotiations, and a company representative on site similarly had no comment. A person who introduced himself to Brudastova as chief of security said that the situation was fine as long as the strikers did not block the entryways to the building, which he noted they were not doing. A handful of police were on site, including Captain Thomas Smith, commanding officer of the 1st Precinct, which covers an area that consists of a square mile on the southernmost tip of Manhattan island.
Police, Harshberger said, were "sympathetic," noting that Smith told her, "'we are gonna have an officer here monitoring you all day, but we're not gonna get in your way, we're not gonna challenge you on a noise permit for the loudspeaker.' Basically," she said, "he was as nice as he could be about it."
Smith's early estimate for the number of strikers was 95 people. That number, said Harshberger, was about right, if a little low.
"We were anticipating about 115 from Harper alone, plus family, friends, and other supporters from other 2110 unions," she said. "I would say we're a bit over 100 now. It's probably going to fluctuate a bit throughout the day. We're aware that it's gonna get up to, like, 96 degrees today, and we lost a couple people in the past 48 hours—we're still in a Covid pandemic, and people get sick—but I'm proud of this turnout."
That number, Harshberger told PW following the end of the strike, more than held up throughout the day, with "very high participation across the membership, striking in person and remotely." The strike fund, as well, was successful; multiple striking workers said the fund raised nearly 20,000 throughout the day, and Harshberger said that the fund "successfully raised the money we need to provide solidarity payments to every worker who participated in the strike," and is now closed "so we can regroup and take time to disburse payments."
The union, Harshberger noted on Thursday morning, has not yet heard from HC management. "We will plan our next steps based on management's response to yesterday," she said, adding: "the ball is in their court."
This story will be updated as the strike progresses.