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Venerable Lefties at Harper’s Divided by Union

Harper’s, one of the last bastions of old-line liberalism and a lonely defender of a certain idea of what literary culture should be, has long been supported by the largesse of its owner publisher and patron, John “Rick” MacArthur, an author and heir to a ceramics fortune who has long supported liberal causes. And now, in a strange, ironic endgame, MacArthur finds himself fighting against his own side: His staff has unionized.

The Harper’s union has been locked in a bitter dispute with MacArthur since July. And now he’s trying to lay off Harper’s’ literary editor, Ben Metcalf, who’s worked at the magazine since the mid-nineties and who played a key role in the union drive — a move the union says is pure retaliation.

The current crisis began a year ago, when MacArthur fired the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Roger Hodge. The two men had once been close, but their relationship had frayed as the red ink mounted: Newsstand sales dropped, MacArthur’s appetite for losses waned, and Hodge tried to defend the staff from cuts. According to Harper’s’ most recent tax filing in 2009, MacArthur invested $4.4 million into the magazine. (In 2006, his losses were only $2.9 million.)

In the months following Hodge’s ouster, the staff became alarmed when MacArthur’s name began appearing on top of the masthead (previously it had been underneath the editors’ names, along with the business staff). Senior editors Bill Wasik, Luke Mitchell, and Jen Szalai departed, along with web editor Paul Ford. To fill Hodge’s position, MacArthur appointed Ellen Rosenbush, Harper’s’ longtime managing editor, as acting editor. The move struck many staffers as a way to have a more pliant editor in charge: Rosenbush helped edit MacArthur’s monthly column in the Providence Journal and his book You Can’t Be President.. Staffers also complained that MacArthur’s business plan was doomed to fail. He seemed to show little interest in the web in general or the iPad in particular, at a moment when The Atlantic, its longtime thought-leader rival, had invested heavily online and had reaped benefits both in prestige and in financial viability. “He said no one will ever make money on the web,” one staffer told me on condition of anonymity.

A couple of months after Hodge’s firing, senior editor Donovon Hohn helped to convene a meeting about publishing Harper’s on the iPad. MacArthur didn’t attend. But shortly thereafter, staffers began receiving xeroxed articles from MacArthur in their mailboxes that trashed the iPad and Kindle. One article from the Spectator had a hand-typed line at the top:

Last month, MacArthur wrote a column for the Providence Journal, subsequently posted on Harper’s’ website, that bashed the Internet. “I never found e-mail exciting,” he wrote. “My skepticism stemmed from the suspicion that the World Wide Web wasn’t, in essence, much more than a gigantic, unthinking Xerox machine …”

When one staffer brought MacArthur’s attention to a recent New York Times article that stated The Atlantic was profitable this year because of its heavy investments in the web, MacArthur responded: “They’re lying. They’re a private company and they can say whatever they want.”

Metcalf and other staffers began discussing the idea of forming a union in the months after Hodge was fired. Metcalf called Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110, and she met with Metcalf and several Harper’s staffers at a coffee shop. Local 2110 also represents employees of Harper Collins, The Village Voice, The Nation, and The New Press. (The Nation is unionized, but represented by the Newspaper Guild of America.)

On July 29, 2010, Metcalf, Rosenstein, and about a dozen Harper’s employees gathered outside MacArthur’s office. They opened the door, and Rosenstein informed MacArthur that the staff was forming a union. MacArthur seemed startled to see the group crowded into the doorway. “He was extremely upset,” Rosenstein told me.

MacArthur recently told me in an e-mail: “I was taken by surprise and I thought it was rude that they didn’t schedule a meeting to discuss it.”

In a follow-up phone call, MacArthur told Rosenstein that he viewed the union as a “power play” by the staff. “He was very hostile,” Rosenstein told me. “He said people had lied and misled him me about the reason they wanted to form a union, and that the staff was angry about Roger Hodge being fired. This was about Ben Metcalf becoming editor and they were against Ellen.”

MacArthur contested the entire staff’s right to unionize, arguing that editors and assistant editors who make up about half of the editorial team were management and thus did not qualify. Staffers couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony: The staunch defender of unions, who in a 2009 Harper’s piece called the UAW “the country’s best and traditionally most honest mass labor organization,” was now on the other side of the table as the “worst kind of factory owner,” as one staffer put it to me.

MacArthur hired veteran employment lawyer Bert Pogrebin, who had previously faced off against the Village Voice union, to negotiate on his behalf. In August, the matter was taken up by the National Labor Relations Board. Pogrebin tried to get many of Harper’s’ editors, including Metcalf and senior editors Donovon Hohn and Chris Cox, excluded from the union on the grounds that were in management positions. In September, the NLRB ruled that Metcalf and the others could join the union. In October, the NLRB denied MacArthur’s appeal, and the union went ahead with plans to hold elections that would certify the union. Staffers put up signs around the office and a ballot box was placed in the conference room.

On October 13, the day before elections were scheduled, MacArthur sent a letter to the staff lobbying employees to vote against the union. “I confess that I remain confused about the goal of the people seeking union representation,” he wrote, “but I have to assume it has something to do with my firing of Roger, objections to my promoting Ellen over Ben, and general insecurity about the future of the magazine.” MacArthur wrote that forming a union “will not, as some have requested, give any of you a great voice in the selection of the next editor,” and added, “Certainly, the union will not be able to solve the financial problems of the magazine or get us more subscribers, newsstand buyers or advertisers. It will, of course, be able to collect initiation fees and dues from you.”

On October 14, staffers certified the union and formally joined UAW Local 2110.

Employees have a right to unionize and I feel neutral towards the union,” MacArthur told me in a statement. “They haven’t interfered with the measures we’ve taken to improve the magazine, and my relationship with them is cordial.”

Staffers’ fears that Metcalf was being targeted for retaliation were realized last week, when they found out that Metcalf’s name was included on a list of people that MacArthur wanted to lay off. Rosenstein told me she was discussing upcoming contract negotiations with Pogrebin when he told her that MacArthur was contemplating a round of layoffs. In addition to Metcalf, MacArthur was seeking to lay off a member of the business staff and associate editor Ted Ross, who oversees the “Harper’s Index.” “First of all, we have numerous objections to this,” Rosenstein told me. “Ben spearheaded the union … and they knew Ted was pro union. Ted is a feisty person, he was right out front when we walked into Rick’s office.”

Ben Metcalf and Ted Ross are currently Harper’s Magazine employees,” said Kathy Park Price, Harper’s’ vice-president for public relations, in an e-mail. “We can’t address speculative questions about personnel matters. It’s no secret, however, that we’re in a very tough economy, and that layoffs are not out of the question.”

One employee on the business side has already been laid off.

Metcalf’s fate will be decided in a meeting on January 25 between the UAW and Pogrebin. Whatever happens, Harper’s faces a long road back to regaining the prestige of a magazine that was founded in 1850 and once published Mark Twain, Henry James, and Norman Mailer. MacArthur says that “In recent months, we have made significant improvements to the magazine: we hired Thomas Frank to pen the monthly Easy Chair column and Zadie Smith to write the monthly New Books column. We also made the magazine available on the iPad.”

Frank and Smith are, no doubt, major league hires. But bylines alone may not be able to change Harper’s’ trajectory. As MacArthur lamented in his own magazine on his own website, “we’re headed for the end of the line for middle-class unionism.”

This post has been updated for clarification and to add additional information.

Venerable Lefties at Harper’s Divided by Union