Harper's Magazine Writers Weigh In on Union Battle

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Some of the nastiest union battles erupt with employers whose hearts beat firmly on the left side of the political spectrum. Partly this is the result of hurt feelings: How could my workers be so distrustful? Another accelerant is the assumption that well-meaning bosses know best, a perception shared across the political divide. Whatever the cause, these fratricidal battles have scarred the best non-profit organizations. They've also torn-up unions themselves when their own workers announce they'd like the same bargaining rights as those they represent.

Based on Gabriel Sherman's reporting this week and last in New York Mag's Daily Intel, the current fight at Harper's Magazine seems to be breaking along these lines. The latest development is a sharp letter from a roster of writing celebrities taking publisher Rick MacArthur to task for laying off employees who were key to the recent unionization drive there. Novelists Jonathan Lethem, Madison Smartt Bell, Robert Coover, William Gass, Breyten Breytenbach, and poet-critic Eliot Weinberger are among the 84 signatories who include Harper's contributors and former editors.

The union involved is Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, which also represents the Voice -- including this writer who, however short-termed, remains a loyal member. So our own views are immediately suspect.

But it's worth noting that MacArthur, who keeps the place afloat with his own deep pockets out of a belief in great journalism, wrote an important pro-union book back in 2001 when he chronicled the demise of decent-paying blue-collar union jobs courtesy of Bill Clinton's NAFTA. One of the lessons of "The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Journalism" was that unions can balance the scales, both in the workplace and the country, when it comes to free trade and fair play.

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