Glamor industries often attract young workers despite their usual practice of paying terrible wages and imposing staggering working conditions. The recruits are lured by the superficial aspects the job promises. They become flight attendants – young women with visions of travel to exotic places who did not reckon with a job that made them glorified waitresses. Lack of pay when they were not actually in the air but in a hotel room far from home waiting for their next flight assignment. Often subject to sexual harassment. Expected to look like models and heaven forbid if they gained two or three pounds. And subject to termination as they reached their mid-thirties and no longer looked like barbie-dolls.
That all began to come to an end when they started coming together in their union, the Association of Flight Attendants, which has fought for and won contracts that put an end to many of the medieval practices in their treatment by airlines. Their president, Sara Nelson, is among the most prominent of the current group of progressive leaders in the labor movement today.
Another industry in this category is book publishing. The prospect of cocktail parties where they would meet famous writers, helping to influence national discourse, and of rising to top positions at major publishing houses has lured many young men and women into the editorial departments at these houses for years, tolerating the low pay and working conditions that have grown more grueling year after year.
A recent article in Publishers Weekly titled “Is the Publishing Industry Broken?” discusses some of the problems that have accumulated over the years. Editorial assistants, the position they start out at (and often remain for years), talk about the growing corporate consolidation of the industry – medium-sized companies devouring the smaller ones and large companies gobbling up the medium-sized ones – that have seen the disappearance of some of the legendary publishing houses. Accompanying this is the “intensifying corporate culture that prizes meetings over meaningful work” during their days at the office and forces them to spend hours of work at home on their editing jobs. A “creeping feeling that they’re pushing a product more than a passion.” And the fact that many of these publishing houses are located in New York where their low pay cannot support the high cost of living in the city. The prospects of promotion have also largely dried up as corporate consolidation leaves fewer and fewer companies and corporate structures bring in business executives to higher positions.
In the face of these miserable salaries and staggering work loads, many of these young editorial assistants are looking to the prospects that unionization could bring. On July 20, unionized workers at HarperCollins went out on a one-day strike in an effort to push the company into negotiations with their union (see item further down on this page.) HarperCollins is about the only publishing house that has had a union for a long time. Before it was swallowed up in a corporate merger, it was known as Harper & Row. At other publishers, including Image Comics and Seven Seas Entertainment, employees have recently unionized. And labor organizers are reported to have been building organizing networks in the industry for the past few years.
No one is sure how the current drive for unions will go in the publishing industry. There have been efforts before. For right now… stay tuned.