Are Things Turning Up for HarperCollins Employees, or is this the Start of a Larger Problem?

Anaïs Wyder Pivaral

HarperCollins has announced a provisional agreement with the union representing 250 striking employees, agreeing to arrive at federal mediation.

“We entered negotiations eager to find common ground, and we have remained committed to achieving a fair and reasonable contract throughout this process”, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp asserts in a statement. The union, which has experienced a successful and “fair” 80-year history, has attempted negotiations with the publishing house for months to no avail.

Members of the union have expressed relief after months of turning over rocks. On Thursday, Olga Brudastova, president of Local 2110 UAW, stated, “We have been on strike for over two months at this point. It is time for us to resolve any outstanding differences and attempt to reset our relationship.”

HarperCollins and the UAW are divided on issues concerning workplace diversity, wages, and union protections, with the UAW wanting an increase in starting salary from 45k to 50k. Such requests, they believe, are reasonable, as many of the union members include editorial assistants and entry-level marketers, who had been working without a contract since spring.

The often low-salary jobs within the book publishing sector make living difficult in cities like New York, where the cost of living continues to rise. In an article released by Literary Hub, Olivia McGiff, a HarperCollins book illustrator, describes her work as passionate and often “overworked and underpaid.” 

McGiff, who walked more than 308k steps during the union marches, speaks out on current salaries and workplace diversity, stating, “They understand first-hand how unlivable and inhumane today’s minimum is ($45k in NYC? Are you kidding me?!), how it ultimately keeps BIPOC and underrepresented voices out of publishing.”

While the last HarperCollins strike occurred in 1976, tensions within the workplace have consistently risen. In 2020, American Dirt, written by Jeanine Cummins, became swept up in controversy. As one of the first releases of the year, the Latin community criticised the novel, which centres around a Mexican mother and son who struggle to travel to the US border.

Cummins, a half-Puerto Rican, half-white writer, told Alexandra Alter of the New York Times: “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story.” Her “privilege would make [her]blind to certain truths,” and she hoped that someone “slightly browner would write it.”

Indeed, Latin America is comprised of 33 countries, every one of which has its own narrative, history, and culture. Unfortunately, Cummins needs to be better versed in the Mexican experience and has no sense of the Chicana identity. Hence, the wooden Mexican-Spanish dialogue reads as if picked up from a quick search on Google Translate.

Statistically, stories submitted by Latin writers are often neglected or underpaid, a problem recurrent within the publishing industry. However, such issues extend into a lack of diversity. Seventy-six percent of the industry is white, with HarperCollins neglecting to raise diversity quotas in order to make the workspace more inclusive. 

Genessee Floressantos, a strike picket captain for the union and an associate publicist for the international sales department at HarperCollins, says, “I’ve seen about 15 women of colour leave the company, and I’ve only been here for a year and a half. That’s about one a month,”“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.” The big five publishing houses have not released retention statistics, only sharing demographics in their DEI reports.