Books Are the Missing Piece of a Unionized American Culture Industry

Organizing book stores like Barnes & Noble could lift up the entire creative underclass.

Hamilton Nolan

A union store. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

One interesting side effect of writing a book about unions (as I recently did) is that it makes you more aware that the book industry is, for the most part, not unionized. On one hand: yeah, just like every other industry! On the other hand, there are some glaring reasons to think that the book business — the whole, sprawling chain, from writing to publishing to selling — is overdue for its own big wave of unionization. Book workers, unite! You have nothing to lose but the branded tote bags they give you instead of raises. 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, any type of worker, in any type of workplace, in any area can be convinced to organize. The hard part is just helping people understand exactly what they are losing by not having a union, and what they can do about it. This process of education and empowerment that precedes union drives can be more or less difficult depending on how easily employees can be misled, intimidated, or bought off by management. For these reasons, the sweetest of sweet spots for union organizing is often overeducated, underpaid workers.” Hmm… where do these sorts of workers work? 

You know the answers. These workers, who my former colleagues and I at Gawker used to refer to as the creative underclass,” can be found in great numbers in academia, in higher education, in journalism and media, and in the high prestige, low pay precincts of the cultural world at museums and other institutions. In other words: in many of the industries that have, in recent years, been feverishly unionizing. By and large, these workers went to school and got educated as they were told to do — often at fancy schools, which left them in great debt — and then emerged to find that, contrary to all that stuff they had heard about Hard Work and The American Dream, their education did not translate into a decent living. 

This basic dynamic, from higher ed to media to the cultural world, has been like Miracle-Gro for union organizing — the one thing that these workers understand can rearrange the power imbalance that is screwing them over. 

The book world, though, has been something of an outlier. Writers themselves may very well have passed through unions when they were on campus or working in media, but the permanent workers of the book industry mostly have not. Of the Big Five” publishers, only HarperCollins is unionized. (My own publisher, Hachette, is not.) Last year, workers at HarperCollins went on strike for more than two months in a fight over the modest demand of a $50,000 per year salary minimum, which gives you a good idea of the industry’s traditionally low wages. 

Through all of the past century’s labor uprisings, publishing has largely managed to sustain its ability to leverage its own cultural cachet — a glamorous literary dream job, in dazzling New York City! — to pay peanuts to workers who want to be a part of it. To launch a union drive in a competitive, highly consolidated industry like that always runs the risk of being cast out of the place that you have dreamed to work your whole life. The unionized workers at HarperCollins have therefore been stuck with the heroic but unfair task of carrying the whole industry’s labor standards on their shoulders. 

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Major publishers are a glaring target for unions. They sit roughly adjacent to the media industry, where unions have been feasting for nearly a decade now, and to the entertainment industry, where unions are more energized than ever after a 2023 characterized by two national strikes. (On top of that, Simon & Schuster, one of the Big Five, was bought by a private equity firm last year, which is always and everywhere a flashing red warning sign for employees to unionize before the financial vultures attack.)

Besides the natural benefit to workers, unionization of publishers is an important part of the long term project of organizing the entire supply chain of American culture. Movies, media, music, books — the things that are, besides bombs, America’s most potent global export — should all be union industries. Otherwise, as Hollywood proves, they will be fully digested by the power of capital. Helping publishing workers catch up with their unionized counterparts in this swath of the economy makes a great deal of sense for everyone.

The one part of the book industry that has joined the union wave in earnest is book stores. Some of the biggest independent book stores in the country, like The Strand and Powell’s, have long been unionized — and now, as The Guardian reported this week, workers at Barnes & Noble are accelerating plans to join them. In the past year, six of the company’s 600 locations have unionized, over the bleating objections of the CEO. Four of those stores, including three in New York City, have joined the Retail Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU) — a union inclined to lean into new organizing drives, as evidenced by the great resources it expended trying to win a union at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

The union effort at Barnes & Noble is proceeding on a store by store basis, according to RWDSU communications director Chelsea Connor. The three New York City stores have been in bargaining for seven months, but the company has so far refused to allow them to negotiate a single master contract for all of the stores in the city. Connor says the union is in the midst of a national organizing effort” at Barnes & Noble, though she wouldn’t disclose specific plans.

In any union drive at a national chain, it is easy to imagine that if the union can get enough stores organized, it can use a combination of strikes and negative PR to force the company to bargain a national contract, elevating the work lives of all of the employees at once. Indeed, this is the thing that the Starbucks union appears to have accomplished, weathering a storm of union busting to wear the company down and force it to the table. Besides the ample efforts of the workers and organizers themselves, the victory at Starbucks was aided by a friendly Biden administration NLRB, which deluged Starbucks with charges for violating labor laws, and by friendly politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who dragged Starbucks founder Howard Schultz in front of Congress to berate him for being a hypocritical scumbag.

A company like Barnes & Noble, whose customers are probably more sensitive than average to the idea that they are supporting an exploitative monster, is vulnerable to a Starbucks-esque approach. The more stores that the RWDSU can organize, the more plausible such a strategy becomes.

Gaze at the book industry with optimistic eyes and you will be able to see the outlines of a union-fueled alternative to the shoddy and deflating commodification of culture that American businesses specialize in. We can unionize the schools that teach people to write, so they can think without debt suffocating them. We can unionize the media outlets where the writers hone their craft, so that they don’t have to give up their writing dreams before it starts. We can unionize the publishing houses so the people who do the actual work of producing the books can share in the prosperity of the successful authors (and the always successful corporate managers). We can unionize the book stores, so that no one who plays a part in the delivery of books to readers has to be condemned to a life of genteel poverty. And then we can sell the books to a unionized Hollywood, where unionized screenwriters can turn them into movies staffed by unionized actors and directors and crews. Sounds nice, right? We’re already on the path. It’s just a matter of helping our friends in the book industry fill in the gaps.

Or, we can just let AI read every book ever written and produce infinite versions of Twilight that can be turned directly into CGI movies overseen by a single paid employee whose job is to send the profits directly to the limited partners of the private equity firm. The choice is ours!

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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