Harper’s Union Spat Intensifies As Big-Name Authors Weigh In [Updated]

By
John "Rick" MacArthur. Photo: Photo: Jimi Celeste / patrickmcmullan.com

The war of words between Harper's publisher John "Rick" MacArthur and the magazine's union is intensifying. Today, the union is circulating an open letter to MacArthur signed by 84 writers and former Harper's editors that calls on the publisher to cancel the planned layoffs of literary editor Ben Metcalf and Harper's Index editor Ted Ross. The signatories, who read like a guest list for a Brooklyn literary salon, include novelists Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders, and recent Harper's hires Zadie Smith and Thomas Frank. Read the full letter here.

The letter is designed to ratchet up public pressure a day before a scheduled meeting between MacArthur's representatives and union officials to negotiate the fates of Metcalf and Ross. Both staffers have been slated to be laid off. As New York first reported last week, Metcalf was instrumental in organizing the staff to unionize last summer, and the union views the pending layoffs as retaliation against him.

"We are greatly concerned to learn of your plan to lay off union members so closely on the heels of the election and without first negotiating a contract," the letter states. "We ask you to reconsider these layoffs and negotiate with this union in good faith, as the law requires."

The letter voices two of the union's main demands: fewer budget cuts and additional outside fund-raising to shore up Harper's troubled finances. "Editorial costs can only be cut so far without damaging the quality of the publication. Because we do not wish to see such a venerable institution decline, we further ask you to explore fundraising options adopted by other not-for-profit publications and open the magazine's foundation to monies other than your own."

Harper's is owned by the nonprofit Harper’s Magazine Foundation, but has long been supported financially by MacArthur, who invested $4.4 million into the magazine in 2009, according to tax filings.

The letter signers acknowledge that MacArthur's generosity has enabled their work to be published.


[P]ublishing a magazine as brave and creative as Harper's Magazine verges on a sacred trust. We truly appreciate the space Harper's Magazine has provided for our work and the generosity and commitment you have demonstrated over the past three decades. But we fear that in a publishing climate as precarious as this one, acrimonious staff relations and sustained losses of editorial experience can imperil any magazine. We do not claim to know the intricacies of the magazine's financial situation, but it is our firm belief that its future depends on employing editors and researchers who enjoy a strong, secure, and harmonious working environment.

Judging from the letter, it's fair to say Harper's won't have a harmonious working environment anytime soon.

Update: MacArthur sent the following letter in response to the signers:

To all signers of the open letter,


I understand that you care deeply for Harper’s Magazine and that is the reason why you were willing to put your name to the letter. It is my feeling, however, that many of you signed this letter without all the facts, including the incorrect information that I am not negotiating in good faith with the union.

The election result, in which a majority of eligible editorial employees voted for union representation, was certified by the NLRB on October 22, 2010. Since that time, Harper’s has been prepared to negotiate in good faith. The union has put off or cancelled meeting dates and has yet to submit its proposals for a contract.

As many of you are aware, I have always been a staunch supporter of the UAW, and this has not changed. I have spoken to various locals and the Region 9 Convention, and anyone who has read my book about NAFTA knows my position. The accounts that I opposed union organization are simply false. When the union petitioned for an election, we agreed, but objected to the inclusion of certain people I considered part of the management team. The union agreed that some were management and disagreed about others. The Board upheld the union’s position and we went forward.

Faced with increased financial losses, we have had to cut expenses. This year I laid off a high-salaried person from the business side and proposed two editorial layoffs of employees whose job functions could be absorbed. The layoffs have nothing to do with the union. This is not the first time I have had to lay off an employee. Last year, prior to the union’s petition, I laid off a business-side employee, and during the past year, two editorial positions have not been replaced. One has only to look at the layoffs at the Village Voice and the buyouts at the New York Times to know that print publications are reducing staff to cut costs, notwithstanding union representation. We are negotiating the layoffs in the editorial department with the union.

Since 1980, when the Harper’s Magazine Foundation was formed to save the publication, it has been my goal to uphold the highest standards of quality at the magazine. I can assure you that we will take the steps necessary to survive, and that our cuts will not affect the quality of the journalism or the writers who contribute to Harper’s. As for our staff represented by the union, we will do our utmost to come to an agreement that would continue the fair treatment of our employees, which has always been, and continues to be, my policy.

Rick