I recently came across a Facebook invitation to rally in front of the HarperCollins publishing house in Midtown New York City. I’d naively assumed that working as an editor in one of the largest, most profitable, and most prestigious publishing houses in the world automatically landed you in the upper-crust — if not the top 1%, at least the top 5%.
But I was wrong. The invitation claimed the workers at HarperCollins had been “fighting for a fair union contract for over a year… Now the Company is trying to destroy our contract by eviscerating our rights and refusing to negotiate wage and benefit guarantees. Rupert Murdoch is the poster child for billionaire greed — don’t let him and HarperCollins get away with stomping on our rights.”
I’ve known that HarperCollins was owned by NewCorp, and thus part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, ever since Collins almost bought the rights to my book four years ago. I did my due diligence and followed the money. HarperCollins is a glossy brand and the last place I expected to hear such Occupy-Wall-Street-esque rhetoric. So I attended the demonstration to see what the fuss was about.
I arrived late on this rainy Wednesday afternoon, and the first speaker I heard started by saying, “Look, I love working at HarperCollins. That’s probably the last thing you expected to hear at a rally like this, but it’s true.” He talked a bit about why that was, then he went on to say why he was protesting. The management claimed they had offered fair contract negotiations. He said all they offered was pay cuts, benefit cuts, vacation cuts, and less job security in exchange for nothing at all. He said, “Even a child can tell you that’s not a fair offer.”
Another woman (who also said she loved her job) talked about how the company wanted to cut their yearly raises to 1% (which doesn’t even keep up with inflation), and not even guarantee that. Health care costs were also expected to rise above and beyond that potential 1% pay raise, making it effectively a pay cut.
Maternity leave was being cut in half, and workers would face a more restricted ability to carry over their vacation days from year to year. It was traditional in the publishing world, she said, to give editors the week off between Christmas and New Year’s since the printers’ are closed and there’s not much to do as a way of compensating for generally low wages. But that doesn’t happen anymore.
She said, “HarperCollins is not a foundation. It’s not a non-profit. It’s a large and profitable company. If it wasn’t, NewsCorp wouldn’t have bought it and wouldn’t still be our parent company. We had some hard times in 2008, and we understood when things had to be cut back. But since then we’ve come back in a big way, making excellent profits this year. Yet the company wants us to accept larger pay cuts and less job security than ever. Some people ask me, ‘Why don’t you just leave?’”
Well, that’s easy, I thought. It’s not like it’s necessarily going to be much better anywhere else. The whole world is in a crazed neoliberal race to the bottom.
“The thing is,” she said, “I shouldn’t be in a position where I should have to start thinking about leaving. I love my job, and I do it well. I should be enjoying my work and life and looking forward to many more productive years ahead.”
A general cheer went up. That was it, right there. The American dream: Work hard, work well, and be rewarded with your share in the wealth created by your efforts and enough leisure time during evenings, weekends, vacations, and retirement to enjoy it.
Unfortunately, it’s all going up in smoke. She went on to talk about how her husband got laid off from his job, which meant she could no longer supplement her relatively small paycheck with his. When he finally got another job, the pay wasn’t as good. They had to move to a more remote neighborhood. She can’t afford lunch in Midtown, so she packs her lunch every day. A monthly Subway pass isn’t in her budget, so she bikes everywhere. She constantly faces the embarrassment of turning down invitations to go out with friends because she can’t afford the food and drinks at the places they go. She couldn’t afford to travel anywhere for vacation this year, so she hung around NYC and made the best of it.
She said, “Thank God we don’t have kids. I can’t even imagine how we would support them.”
This is an editor at one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the world. This is literally a dream job for thousands of people. And she can’t even afford a monthly Subway pass?
The next speaker made it clear what was going on: “This isn’t just about corporate greed,” she said. “It’s about destroying America. It’s about putting us in our place. It’s about telling us they can give us what they want, when they want, and we just have to take it. Well, guess what? We, the 99%, have figured it out. We’re bigger than they are, we’re stronger than they are, and we will continue to fight.”
These editors aren’t asking for much. A little job security. Pay that keeps up with inflation. Not even a fair share in the enormous wealth created by their creative efforts and passion, just enough to “get by, and also have a bit left over for the little things that make life worthwhile.”
Yet they have to fight tooth and nail, hammer and claw, not only for every inch they gain, but also for every inch they don’t want to lose.
This is a microcosm of what Occupy Wall Street is protesting. This is just one tiny tendril in the multi-pronged attack on the most basic things I took for granted growing up: Free speech, free press, free assembly, fair trials, fair wages, fair shakes. A government of the people and for the people. This was what America meant to me growing up, what I was told it was all about.
And we’re watching it go away, little by little, right before our eyes as 1% of the citizenry hoard all the resources, all the profits from our labor, and all the political power (it’s no coincidence that most of our “leaders” are among the 1%), leaving the rest of us struggling and scrambling and fighting.
Occupy Wall Street is a valiant, if somewhat unfocused, effort to bring attention to these trends. It attempts to be inclusive, but it’s dominated by the usual suspects on the far left who are tragically easy to ignore because they have little in the way of funding, PR savvy, or organizational skills. The mainstream gatekeepers gloss over them with selective (usually unflattering) coverage that doesn’t dare touch on what they are actually protesting about. Or, like Bloomberg, they simply bust them up with marginally legal paramilitary tactics.
But the trends are becoming too large, too obvious, too painful and unfair to ignore.
Even the editors in the hallowed halls of HarperCollins are protesting in the rain.