When Rachel Kambury, 31, started working at publishing company Hachette six years ago, her manager sat her down and said, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
She was flattered. “I was certainly happy to be there,” Kambury recalled. “But then he said, ‘You actually beat 400 other people for this job.'”
Kambury felt honored at the time and felt affirmed that she had been chosen over hundreds of others for one coveted spot. Although the role was her dream job, the salary was not desirable. It was 2016 and Kambury was making about $33,000 – before taxes.
“I soon came to the realization of, Oh, that’s how they justify these salariesbecause there were 400 people ready and willing to take my place,” she says. “They know that and take it for granted.”
Kambury has since moved on to other publishing houses; she is currently an associate editor at HarperCollins. She’s well into her career now, having worked on hundreds of bestsellers and bidding up to $500,000 on books — and yet, “I only make about $13 an hour after taxes,” she says.
Kambury is one of hundreds of unionized HarperCollins employees currently advocating for fair wages and better labor standards. Kambury says the strike, which began on Nov. 10, will continue until workers negotiate a fair contract. The union represents some 250 workers, who have been working without a contract since April, according to the union New York Times.
— Erika DiPasquale (@ErDiPasquale) November 11, 2022
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The movement has received support from others in the publishing world, world famous authors and online supporters expressing their solidarity. The widespread attention has brought to light, as Kambury points out, that it’s not just HarperCollins – it’s pretty much all of publishing.
“I would call it a combination of hazing and the process of elimination,” says Kambury. “This is true of all the major publishers and some of the smaller ones – they’ve built their businesses more and more on the exploitation of labor over the years. They take passionate kids straight out of college as much as possible.”
Kambury is not referring to “hazing” in the traditional sense, but rather subtle manipulation by those in power that reinforces the problematic systems that have made publishing a cutthroat industry for decades.
“You hear things like ‘It’s always been that way’ and ‘When I started, I was on $14,000 a year,'” she says. “So there’s this sort of top-down treatment of young workers where it’s like, ‘You should be thankful to be here. Don’t complain about the salary. Don’t care about the workload.'”
Kambury points to another key issue in today’s publishing world: the generation gap in which college graduates who have been in the industry for decades now “pat themselves on the back” for approving overtime or granting paid time off. Kambury says she’s been “lucky” to have managers who approve of her overtime, but she has friends in the industry whose managers won’t even let them log – but that doesn’t mean they don’t work 10-15 hours a day . week, because Kambury says that’s a given.
— Courtney Stevenson (@courtney_ps) November 14, 2022
The strikers are calling for three major changes. First an increase in base salaries and then an adjustment of certain margins to ensure that there is no wage pressure. Second, a commitment to codify the language in the contract to essentially ensure that the company’s commitment to diversity isn’t just words, but that it works through what those words mean.
And third, stronger trade union protection.
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When they began this process in December 2021, union leaders put together about six pages of proposals that Kambury said were “very doable, nothing crazy. And now we’re down to three — not even pages — just three demands.”
What currently frustrates Kambury and so many others in the picket line is that they believe what they are asking for is relatively standard. However, because the publishing industry is built on low-wage systems, it’s a tougher battle than you might expect. “The company has made it very, very clear that they view us as expendable, disposable, expendable,” says Kambury. “And that’s an incredibly awful feeling.”
Despite the circumstances, Kambury says the energy on the picket line — and online — is “electric and inspiring.”
“If I could bottle it and make it into a perfume, I would,” she says. “I would wear it every day. It’s just so comforting.”
The strikers have been protesting since November 10 and intend to press on, rain or shine. HarperCollins did not immediately respond to a request for comment.