Print Media

Unions are Very Important, Unless You Work for Progressive Intellectuals


John MacArthur, the moneybags behind Harper's magazine, acts like a big bad moneybags and punishes his intellectual workers (or management!) for union formation. A smattering of details from a New York magazine account. MacArthur is

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…..

Metcalf and other staffers began discussing the idea of forming a union in the months after [former editor Roger] 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….

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….

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…

Unions, a power play by workers? The very idea! (One imagines MacArthur harrumphing from behind a phalanx of Pinkertons.)

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, whoin 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.

The National Labor Relations Board–supported, remember, by "that man Roosevelt" in the old days–decided that MacArthur was wrong, the union right. Harper's could feel the surge of that people power that there be in a union. MacArthur wrote a letter to the staff asking them to not vote for union representation, leading to my favorite line from MacA: "I confess that I remain confused about the goal of the people seeking union representation…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."

Lem Boulware couldn't have said it any better. But as of October 14, Harper's staff are members of UAW Local 2110.

People whose intellectual lives began this century might know this venerable publication Harper's, available to most only on "paper," as but a dim memory. But trust me, as someone who has felt its intensely frightening weight in my very hands this very month, it's out there. And someday, you might find that out for yourself. (The New York article effectively mocks MacArthur's fear and hatred of using the Web as a way to communicate with readers, make money, or allow the world to know the mag still exists.)

I took on Harper's peculiar anti-market snobbery in the previous century.