Harper’s, arguably one of the most venerable magazines in the U.S. — and the second-oldest continuously published American monthly — is in the midst of an intensifying conflict with its staff’s union.
The publisher of Harper’s, John “Rick” MacArthur, has planned two layoffs at the magazine, which he says are due to budgetary concerns, including that of literary editor Ben Metcalf and Harper’s Index editor Ted Ross.
In response, a group of Harper’s star contributors and past editors — a list that includes some of today’s brightest and most formidable writers and intellectuals — has issued an open letter to Rick MacArrthur.
The 84 names on the list include Zadie Smith, Barbara Ehrenreich, George Saunders, Elif Batuman, William Gass, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, and Naomi Klein.
They lent their considerable gravitas to call upon MacArthur to reconsider the layoffs of Metcalf and Ross, just a day before the scheduled meeting between MacArthur’s representatives and union officials.
As NY Mag reported, Metcalf was “instrumental” in organising the staff to unionize last summer, and his slated layoff in particular is viewed as retaliation to the union.
Additionally, the signatories asked MacArthur to open up the Harper‘s Magazine Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the magazine, or to explore additional methods of funding (apparently magazines like The Nation and the Paris Review hold various fundraisers to supplement their budgets, while Harper‘s does not.)
At a time when there is much chatter about the death of print, publishing a magazine as brave and creative as Harper‘s Magazine verges on a sacred trust… [W]e fear that in a publishing climate as precarious as this one, acrimonious staff relations and sustained losses of editorial experience can imperil any magazine.
Read the whole letter [pdf].
A Harper’s contributor told us, “The strength of Harper‘s is its amazing editorial staff, and if the editors aren’t happy, then the magazine will definitely suffer….Whatever business-side issues there are over there, they have to be addressed in a way that doesn’t alienate the people who make the publication what it is.”
There certainly does seem to be a divide between the writers and staff of Harper‘s and its publisher at the moment. Yesterday MacArthur issued a letter in response to the open letter, where he said “that many of you signed this letter without all the facts,” and he asserts that accounts that he opposed union organisation “are simply false.”
He also wrote that the union “has put off or canceled meeting dates and has yet to submit its proposals for a contract.”
In explanation of the layoffs, MacArthur wrote that “faced with increased financial losses,” the magazine has had to cut expenses.” However, he has yet to fully address whether he would be opening up Harper‘s to other sources of funding.
[Updated] The president of the union, Maida Rosenstein, reached out to us with the following statement over email:
Rick MacArthur himself omits a number of facts that are a matter of public record. He says he has not opposed the editorial union, but when the staff of Harper’s announced its intent to unionize, Rick initially attempted to exclude all but the assistant editors. When the NLRB ruled against him, he appealed. When his appeal was turned down, he challenged votes at the election. On the eve of the election he sent a letter to all members of the editorial staff urging them to vote no and warning that a union would “make the office a more rigid place to work.”
The union has not sought to delay negotiations. In fact we are still waiting for Rick to provide financial information necessary for those negotiations to proceed. Having lost five of our most experienced editors in 2010, having already absorbed their work while helping the magazine dramatically reduce editorial payroll, we dispute Rick’s contention that the work performed by the two editors he now wishes to lay off can be readily “absorbed.”
We are prepared to propose alternative cost-saving measures, and we are pleased to hear that when negotiations begin tomorrow Rick is prepared to bargain in good faith.
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