Why Organizing Workers in the Book Industry Is So Damn Hard

Workers in the book industry often suffer poor conditions and low pay, but are supposed to feel grateful for the privilege of working near books. Casting off such illusions is the first step to organizing publishers and booksellers, and fighting the exploitation that thrives in the hallowed culture industry.

Bookstore opens after fifty-one days of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images)

As book industry workers around the world experience destabilizing changes to their employment because of COVID-19, we’re reminded of how fragile workers’ rights can be in industries that are yet to properly organize. In Australia, when book industry workers need collective action more than ever, organizing even the smallest workplaces has proven difficult.

Compared to other creative or retail industries, union membership in the book industry has been slow, with the lack of union support placing workers in vulnerable positions. But why is organizing the book industry such hard work?

Along with the suppression and stigmatization of unions in the book industry, one of the steepest barriers to organizing is the myth of “doing it for the love of books,” which employers perpetuate to create the illusion that publishing workers are somehow exempt from the inherent exploitation of wage labor. Add to this the exclusivity of jobs in publishing and bookselling, and you’ve got yourself a submissive workforce that is largely averse to rocking the boat.

Despite these significant barriers, creative industries continue to unionize—Private Media, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Vice, the Ringer and the New Yorker, to list a few inspiring examples. In the Australian book industry, workers have recently made some relatively modest but historically significant leaps towards organization.

In 2019, Penguin Random House (PRH) achieved the first union-negotiated enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) in publishing, facilitated by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), while in 2018, workers at bookshops across Melbourne successfully won a landmark protection of penalty rates and higher health and safety standards through the new but militant Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU).

As union delegates in these cases, we learned firsthand what the barriers to unionizing the book industry look like, and how they might be overcome.

All on the Same Page

Of course, many of these barriers are similar to those faced by members of the wider union movement. In Australia, union membership has declined sharply in the last forty years. From the recently defeated Ensuring Integrity Bill to new “crisis” rules allowing rapid changes to existing agreements, union-busting is alive and well.

Yet there are still encouraging signs of radical energy, from the recent rank-and-file revolt at the National Tertiary Education Union, to waves of strikes across Victorian supermarket distribution centers after known COVID-19 outbreaks in the warehouses.

But wage stagnation nonetheless reflects the relative weakness of the modern union movement which is especially pronounced in the publishing industry where salary secrecy is rampant and wage theft obscured.

Meanwhile, bookshop workers are subject to the same issues of wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and precarity as their comrades in other retail work. Some Melbourne bookshop workers are among a group of retail, fast food, and hospitality workers who recently won protection of their penalty rates — despite a 2017 ruling by the Fair Work Commission allowing employers to reduce them —  and this was only achieved because they unionized.

Union Erasure

Despite these similarities, publishing and bookselling in Australia are also unique from other adjacent industries — such as distribution or supermarket work — because they have no historical union culture. The distribution  arm of PRH, United Book Distributors, has been unionized for years.

While negotiating the EBA, many Australian PRH employees were surprised to learn that the British division of the company has also long been unionized. This is suggestive of the problem: it’s incredibly difficult to build a movement, even one with modest strategic aims, in an industry where union culture is either non-existent or not talked about.

At PRH, management actively repressed past efforts to organize, fostering a culture of secrecy that left staff feeling understandably anxious about criticizing workplace culture because of fear of retribution.

As Australian writer and book editor Samantha Forge wrote in 2018, “There is a sense among well-meaning, book-loving publishing workers that to ask for more, collectively, would be to imperil literary culture itself.” This atmosphere holds back discussion about the actual issues workers are facing.

Because organizing itself is considered so taboo, workers trying to build a movement are often stuck making the most elementary argument: that a union is necessary or helpful at all.

Case in point: in late 2019, when workers at the publishing house Hardie Grant sought to begin bargaining, their bosses fought them tooth and nail, taking the extraordinary step of refusing to commence negotiations on the basis that they didn’t believe editorial staff had a union majority. This forced the MEAA to bring a majority support determination to the Fair Work Commission, Australia’s industrial relations tribunal.

We found that one simple but powerful method for overcoming this was to privately ask our comrades at work to describe their frustrations in their own words. At PRH, staff had made repeated requests for increased wages and paid overtime, using all the “appropriate” channels, but were stonewalled.

After inviting colleagues to speak openly about their conditions, delegates could then point to union action as the next reasonable and effective avenue for making improvements. Hardie Grant likewise refused workers’ demands for negotiations and set up a “suggestion box” instead — which members flooded with suggestions that management come to the table.

The same dynamic was apparent in bookshops, where we had to rapidly educate ourselves — and, very often, management — about our legal rights. To our knowledge, no Australian bookshop has successfully organized and negotiated an EBA with a union. The book industry has little literacy about how organized labor interacts with management, which can cause initial confusion about which union to join, what to expect, or how formal negotiations work.

When faced with penalty-rate cuts, bookshop staff largely agreed that the cuts weren’t fair, which unified them around a central issue. This sparked the initial organization, and forums that were established to discuss these issues soon allowed the articulation of other problems, from health and safety to sexual harassment.

At PRH, the unifying spark ignited when a few comrades learned of the Book Industry Award — Fair Work legislation detailing their legal minimum wages and conditions that management had never shared with them. It was around this time that industry news site, Books+Publishing, had started promoting survey results that illuminated just how poorly publishing workers were being compensated and how rampant wage stagnation was.

After having those open conversations with our comrades, in both publishing and bookselling circles, we used anonymized methods to gather a list of demands and support for them. Simple approaches such as email BCC and anonymous petitions were essential in helping members feel secure and protected.

It was also crucial to remain positive and calm when discussing workplace issues: organizing is, after all, a way of collectively addressing issues, and we took care to stress this despite how tense discussions with management became along the way.

Glamorized Work

Perhaps the most persistent canard in the book trade — and one of the biggest obstacles to organization — is the idea that the work itself is pleasurable enough to justify low wages and precarity.

Bookshops in particular glamorize themselves and present shop work as something other than the alienated labor it truly is. Anyone who has worked in a bookshop can attest to the typical comments made by customers about how they would love to spend “all day reading.”

As James Daunt — the millionaire CEO of Daunt Books, Waterstones, and now Barnes and Noble — said last year, in response to the campaign waged by Waterstones’s staff for a real living wage, “To retain the best and most talented booksellers, we have to reward them, and we reward them as well as we can with pay, but we mainly reward them with a stimulating job.”

This is not to overstate the difficulty of bookshop work compared to any other kind of shop work — but rather to stress that it is just that: shop work, requiring the worker to sort, shelve, and sell products.

Daunt’s attitude is emblematic of the ideological mystification employed in the culture industry to disguise this fact. In the words of one former Waterstones employee, the fact that “many staff members didn’t put themselves in the same category as McDonalds staff or Tesco checkout assistants” undermined their last attempt at unionizing.

Workers are exposed to exactly the kinds of health and safety hazards as workers at supermarkets and, like every business, bookshops often won’t provide expensive protections for their staff against these risks unless they are compelled to.

Examples abound, unfortunately, of employers across the world supplying insufficient PPE during the COVID-19 crisis — or threatening to withhold it unless they drop their union demands. After the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Australia, as retail began to reopen, union health and safety reps at one bookshop compelled management to survey staff on any concerns they had, leading to the creation of a detailed document outlining possible risks and solutions.

This consultation ensured higher levels of protection for staff than would otherwise have been provided and, overall, confidence among workers that they could refuse shifts if they felt unsafe without endangering their future employment prospects.

We hope that these tangible benefits — which, naturally, protect even those who have not yet joined the union — will help to increase membership and worker power over time.

Competition and Disposability

Employers exploit the highly competitive nature of the publishing job market in order to suppress wages and maintain low expectations of improved working conditions. If everybody wants your job, there will always be someone willing to take your place if you don’t appreciate it.

Wages are rarely advertised during recruitment. Salary negotiation requests in interviews are treated as a red flag. Meanwhile, the job descriptions specify one (if not several) tertiary degrees and years of unpaid or low-paid devotion to the industry.

The result is an industry that routinely excludes anyone not from a white, middle-class background (also apparent in the lack of support for diverse authors and content). Because of these demographic influences, you end up with an overqualified, highly educated, mostly white and predominantly female workforce, already weighed down by student debt, who are taught to expect less compensation because of the unique “cultural capital” of the work.

By asking highly qualified workers for skilled labor at a lower price, the book industry actively inflates the value of its own cultural contribution while deflating the worth of its workers — a perfect closed loop of systematic exploitation disguised as cultural elitism.

This is a huge problem, and the first step in overcoming it is raising consciousness among workers. Creating a secure and open forum is an important step on the way to starting, and continuing, these conversations. For example, PRH delegates attended frequent MEAA-led meetings to share solidarity and strategies with colleagues from other publishing houses, and bookshop workers openly shared information with workers at other companies.

There are also private digital spaces where Australian publishing comrades can collect ideas and information. Another useful strategy was the creation of an anonymous, public spreadsheet that invites workers across the industry to add their salaries — inspired by the same approach in the United States.

No Future in the Book Industry Without Unions

All of these barriers make it difficult for book industry workers and their unions to make it past the first stages of organizing, let alone create lasting institutional improvements.

However, what we’ve learned from firsthand experience is that such barriers are not insurmountable. We hope that union membership will become as normalized in the Australian book industry as it is in other industries, leaving members feeling more supported and secure when negotiating for better conditions.

A stronger union base would help book publishing become a more progressive and inclusive industry for staff, authors and readers — one that truly nurtures new ideas and promotes marginalized voices.

Just as many of these problems are not unique to Australia, we believe that the lessons we learned are applicable to those in the book industry worldwide. It is imperative that booksellers cast off the illusion that their labor is somehow different from that of other retail workers, just as publishing workers must reject the idea that their love for their work justifies their exploitation.

With this new sense of class solidarity, workers in the book industry can take their place alongside their comrades in the labor movement fighting for a fairer world.