Verso Books just announced a union—and they have advice for other publishing workers.
There’s a new union on the block: Verso Books announced today that its staff has organized to join the Washington-Baltimore News Guild (WBNG), a unit of the NewsGuild and the Communications Workers of America. Management voluntarily recognized the union last week, according to a statement from the publisher.
The move was meant to formalize the policies that staff have organized around in recent years, including salary banding, a democratic decision-making process, and others, according to the statement. Senior publicist Julia Judge and editor Ben Mabie, the current shop steward, answered some further questions about the process of unionizing and some details that others hoping to do the same should consider.
Why NewsGuild? I know some prior attempts at unionizing within publishing have been with UAW, so I’m wondering what you can share about that selection process.
UAW is one of the best in the business and we have great respect for the work they’ve done across arts and culture organizations—Film at Lincoln Center (who just voted last week in favor of a union), McNally Jackson, the New Museum, and Asian American Writers’ Workshop, to name a few. We had an early and strong connection with the organizers at the NewsGuild and appreciate the work they’ve done with new media outlets in particular. Additionally, the NewsGuild has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years and has an expressed interest in organizing publishing, a historically unorganized industry with no shortage of labor issues. They are currently building a program to help New York-based publishing workers to get organized. We look forward to seeing the fruits of these efforts pay off with other shops in the coming months and years and are proud to be one of the first publishers to come on board.
Over the last decade, the NewsGuild has made a pivot to new, digital media outlets in particular. Jacobin, represented by the NewsGuild as well, is a perfect example of the kind of small shop they’re looking to organize. Their willingness to take a chance and organize these small shops acknowledges how significantly media has changed in the last decade, and the NewsGuild is well-equipped to understand the needs and challenges these shops face, especially in a time as precarious as ours.
What kinds of conversations with industry colleagues have been helpful to staff during this process? Were there any previous unionizing efforts that served as a model for the staff?
We of course spoke to Jacobin early on, and they sung the praises of the NewsGuild. A current Verso staffer was also a founding member of the New Press’s union under UAW Local 2110 and brought invaluable knowledge from that campaign to our own struggle.
Throughout our conversations with friends in the industry, a pretty similar set of questions and concerns came up. They center around job security and quality of life issues. In creative industries, people often conceive of their work as a “labor of love” but we at Verso see it a bit differently—we all deserve dignified working conditions, and we have to fight to make it happen.
There were also concerns we heard about the idea of a union itself. Sometimes, people think of it as a sort of inappropriate incursion, or something that would introduce bureaucracy or ill will into the workplace. It doesn’t, really, although it does give people a vehicle to pursue redress for issues that they might otherwise suffer through quietly before leaving the industry altogether.
There’s one more thing we discovered: for many in the media, the union is, if anything, a sign of our common commitment to our work. It takes work getting the union off the ground and keeping it up. But that work of putting our shoulders on the wheel is perhaps the only thing that makes the promise of a life in publishing possible, where we can have some dignity on the job and the resources we need to make it into a lasting vocation.
How would you advise the workers in other publishing houses that would want to follow in your steps?
The important thing to remember is that the unionization process doesn’t start with a local or evaluating one or another bigger organization—UAW, the NewsGuild, etc.—but with the initiative of you and your colleagues in your workplace. There’s no substitute for organizing. In fact, that’s all the union is: it’s you and your colleagues determining a course for yourselves. The people from the union local supply some legal expertise, encouragement, and a wealth of knowledge on how to be more effective organizers, but its power really derives from the staff.
Where should you start? Make contact with colleagues, and start conversations, privately, about issues that you’re facing on the job. With some of your trusted colleagues you can start to produce a list of everyone that’s going to be part of the union.
In small shops, sometimes it’s easy to transition immediately to larger, department-wide conversations about unionizing. But at bigger shops, where it’s difficult or impossible to imagine an inconspicuous staff-wide convo, you might want to take another track and build an Organizing Committee (O.C.).
The O.C. is the most important part of a successful organizing campaign, a sort of “coalition of the willing.” The trick is to find respected leaders in the workplace that are reflective of the diversity of your staff and talk with them, one-on-one, in order to recruit them to the O.C., with the goal of having about 15 percent of your staff as part of the initial O.C.
What follows might sound like a multi-level marketing scheme, but it’s just good organizing, shorn of MLM’s false promises: the O.C. will talk with everyone on staff in one-on-one meetings, to learn about their issues and priorities and educate everyone on how unionization works (and the fake news that can often surround unions). Kicking out the organizing to a bigger body than just yourself or another comrade-in-arms is critical at an early stage. The O.C. builds in a democratic structure in the workplace and makes it so the organizing drive is the project of many people, rather than the pet project of a single individual.
The goal is to try to get up to around 75 percent support for the union amongst your co-workers, meaning that they’re fully educated in the union, that they’re willing to participate, and that they’re committed to signing a card.
What comes next is a bit byzantine (and a place where your local union affiliate will be especially helpful). But what’s really crucial are those conversations in our own workplaces. And it’s those that we hope this inspires other workers in the book trade and media to start having on their own.
Oh, and since this is Lit Hub, we should end with a reading recommendation: The Secrets of a Successful Organizer, by Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter, which offers ample help in thinking through an organizing drive and the longer-term task of building power on the job.