In days of yore—that is, my childhood in the paper-mill town of Mexico, Maine—a labor strike looked like an ugly affair. Picketing men in steel-toed boots screamed themselves hoarse at every shift change, their righteous anger rising into a sky thick with the sulfurous clouds of papermaking. Scabs go home! Scabs go home! The town was small and closely knit and you could not unsee the workers’ wind-chapped faces, could not unread their handmade signs, could not unhear their guttural cries. Woe unto those who crossed the picket line, for they faced a gauntlet of coworkers, neighbors, friends, and brothers from whom forgiveness would never come.
I live in a different working world now, a loftier, cleaner, more cerebral world, as a writer with a sixth novel scheduled for June publication. My publisher is Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, whose unionized employees walked off the job on November 10. Last week, five days into this underreported strike, I received by email the final version of the gorgeous cover for How to Read a Book, which required my final sign-off. The request came from somebody other than my editor, with whom I’d worked long and hard to bring the novel to the best version of itself. That’s an editor’s job, and it’s not an easy one, often requiring ten-hour days that these women—most of them are women, many of them young women—feel glad and honored to put in. Nobody goes into publishing for the money; it’s a vocation for people who believe in the power of the written word to evoke empathy for and awareness of the human condition. You can’t eat empathy, however, so the unionized employees, including my 26-year-old editor, voted to walk out after a nearly a year of negotiations, demanding a raise in base pay from $45,000 to $50,000.
HarperCollins workers on strike.
Because publishing now relies heavily on virtual communication, a strike within its ranks can look curiously bland. Picketers are indeed stationed outside the HarperCollins offices at 195 Broadway, but a lot of the nonunion folks who once worked on site now work from home. HarperCollins reportedly has expedited calls for “temps” (we called temps something else back in Mexico, Maine), which is good old-fashioned union busting. But when you can’t hear or see a picket line, when you don’t have to shoulder your way through angry, heartbroken people waving signs, it’s a hell of a lot easier to cross.
Well, I know a picket line when I don’t see one. I responded to the request for the cover sign-off by declining to participate in any way with pre-publication tasks for my new novel. This decision not to cross a virtual picket line may hurt me. A delayed cover means delayed production, which means delayed pre-pub reviews, which means delayed publication. Worst case: cancellation altogether, which would break my heart. There would also be advance money to pay back. I understand this. It’s ugly, as all strikes are, whether the picketers are millwrights or book lovers, whether they are close enough to touch or an abstraction in a newspaper article.
Solidarity is just words if what you say can’t come back to bite you. This novel means a lot to me, but the principles of fairness, instilled in me long ago as the child of a union man, mean far more. I hope my fellow HarperCollins authors feel the same.