As the HarperCollins labor dispute rolls into a new year, the company's unionized employee strike is now the longest in the union's more than 80-year history at the top publisher. Since the initial employee walkout on November 10, the dispute has caught the attention of all publishing sectors, with many anticipating the outcome as a test case for how labor unions could change business operations. But for many publishing industry veterans, whether that change is positive or negative remains to be seen.

Indeed, some smaller independent publishers—mostly outside of New York City—are concerned that the public nature of the strike, with wage demands made public, is raising unrealistic financial expectations. Smaller publishing operations can't afford to match wages at the Big Five publishing companies. Moreover, despite the double-digit profit margins that the publicly-traded publishers have posted in recent years, publishing is generally a low margin business. Sales gains during the initial years of the COVID-19 outbreak notwithstanding, the industry typically has marginal growth in annual sales, and “flat is the new up” has long been an unofficial business slogan. A lengthy, very public strike only adds to the industry's challenges, with many agents and authors wanting the dispute to be resolved quickly and immediately so the industry can get back to business.

As of January 18, unionized employees have missed 50 work days, amid numerous stories about HarperCollins' low pay, particularly for entry-level employees.

Inside HarperCollins, staff members have anonymously shared that they are frustrated by the lack of communication from management about the dispute. Others have grown weary of how the labor dispute has created a hostile work environment for non-union employees, pointing to social media posts that suggested books have been released in a slapdash fashion due to the absence of unionized labor. As one employee put it, “The entire situation is just so sad.”

Then there is HC's parent company, News Corp, which many publishing insiders believe could be the force stalling further labor negotiations based on the corporation's history of anti-union business practices. With negotiations at HarperCollins seemingly at a stand still, the HC union organized a January 18 rally outside News Corp's Manhattan headquarters to point the finger at the company in a public way, said Olga Brudastova, president of Local 2110 UAW, the union that more than 250 HarperCollins employees in the design, editorial, legal, marketing, publicity, and sales departments.

"We haven't heard from the company," said Brudastova. "They haven't expressed any desire to restart negotiations so we just have to continue with the pressure tactics."

In general, the union has attracted widespread support. A rally on December 16 was co-hosted by HarperCollins bestselling authors Rebecca F. Kuang and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Other speakers included New York City council member Chris Marte, comptroller Brad Lander, and New York State Senator Brad Hoylman.

Adding to the union's support, a number of agents have expressed that they are not submitting manuscripts to HarperCollins until the labor dispute is settled, with one agent sharing that she would withhold submitting to HC if an author asked her. Stephanie Delman of Trellis Literary, was more definitive. “In solidarity with the HarperCollins Union, our whole agency is withholding new submissions to union-eligible imprints at HarperCollins until the strike is over,” she said, explaining that some imprints, like those at Harlequin, aren’t union eligible.

Because HC union employees went on strike during a period that is generally slow on submissions, it has been difficult to judge the impact of agents boycotting submissions to publisher. But as the strike drags on, charges and counter-charges have mounted.

Brudastova shared that the union, which has been working without a contract since April 2022, is requesting higher pay and greater contractual protections and benefits packages for workers.

After the union demonstrated outside of the National Book Awards, HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray issued an open letter to authors and agents to clarify where negotiations stand. Addressing the union's demands—"which are many and far reaching," said Murray—he explained that the union failed to "account for the market dynamics of the publishing industry, and our responsibility to meet the financial demands of all our business stakeholders—including all employees, authors, and booksellers." He also accused the union of mischaracterizing its negotiations with the company.

In a January 17 statement from a HarperCollins spokesperson reiterating the same points, the company shared that negotiations have been in "good faith" with the United Autoworkers Union for a more than a year and the company has "agreed to numerous proposals that the UAW sought to include in a new contract."

The statement concluded that "the door remains open for the union to come back to the table."

Legally, private employers are not obligated to resolve employee strikes and walkout can go on indefinitely, explained labor law expert, J. Michael McGuire, Esq, of the Baltimore, Maryland-based Shawe Rosenthal LLP. "There is also no obligation for a union to agree to a employer's proposal to end a strike," he said, explaining that there is no obligation in the private sector for any party to agree to binding arbitration.

"You may see binding arbitration from time to time in the public sector, such as firemen, school teachers, police officers, etc., but that is because the state or local legislation that gave collective bargaining rights to those public sector employees also called for some kind of binding arbitration," McGuire added.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the federal law that governs collective bargaining negotiations and strikes involving private employers, is designed to balance the rights of both employers and employees. Both are legally within their right to exercise pressure tactics, McGuire explained but the law does not compel any side to come to an agreement.

"According to the NLRB, an employer has an obligation to meet with the union that represents its employees, to negotiate about wages, hours and working conditions, and, if the parties agree, 'to put into writing any agreement reached,'" explained McGuire. "If the union were to make unreasonable bargaining demands upon the employer, or demands which the employer feels are not in the company’s interest, they have a right under the law to say no."

Although firing or threatening to fire union employees would be a violation of the NLRA, the employer also has the right to continue fulfilling the operational needs of the company, including hiring temporary employees or full-time employees to completely replace union workers.

"If the employer has hired bona fide permanent replacements for employees who are striking over things such as wages, benefits, or improvements in working conditions, the strikers are not necessarily entitled to their job back when the strike ends if the employer is still employing the permanent replacements," said McGuire. "The replaced strikers are entitled to be put on a preferential hiring list for when future openings occur. But the striking employee who has been permanently replaced is not entitled, when the strike ends, to displace the worker who was hired as a permanent replacement for the strike."

He added, "Striking employees have the right to find other employment during a strike without forfeiting their legal rights to return to work when the strike ends if they have not been permanently replaced." While on strike they remain an “employee,” he explained, but employees are not entitled to any exit benefits by virtue of going on strike or finding alternative employment during the strike.

Brudastova shared that the HC union sustained its number of striking employees and are committed to seeing the conflict through to a resolution. As one tweet from the union reads, "We're persistent, pissed, and prepared to take things to the top."

With the publishing world watching on, whatever comes next could have implications for more unions in the publishing industry for years to come.