When I was younger I spent a few years as a union organizer. I don’t mean that I was employed by a trade union: just that I was one of the agitators who got a union recognized and bargaining. I was a member of ASTMS (Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs), and was elected to various posts including branch secretary and delegate to national conference. Union activity seems to be more decentralized in UK than it is in USA. When I arrived in America I signed up for the local union which was making a slight push in the publishing industry in New York. I didn’t have to pay anything: they gave me a membership card and said I shouldn’t have to pay any dues till they had negotiated a contract for me. I’m still waiting. Apart from turning up at one meeting, that’s the last I heard from them.  In Britain it was up to the employees in a company to do the organizing: we spent hours persuading a large proportion of the staff to sign up, pay their dues, and allow us to negotiate for them.

As far as I recall, we never had a union employee present during negotiations with management. In old-fashioned publishing almost everyone was more or less liberal, so it wasn’t as if we were faced with out-and-out opposition.  Indeed management was actually quite welcoming. I was however admonished during negotiation by one management titan that I should understand that they needed bigger pay raises than we did because they had to pay gardeners and maids and other servants.  No doubt there was a union official at our branch meetings, but the only union employee that I can remember is the dashing young man who conducted the charmingly-named Combat School which I attended on a day-release basis over a period of a few months.  The aim of this was to teach us to become keen negotiators. The story of the Ford workers in Dagenham who had sold for higher wages the exact same tea break in three consecutive annual wage negotiations, remains in my mind. The point was that if you continue to take the tea break it rapidly becomes part of the new contract by virtue of the law of Custom and Practice. Unfortunately we never got to test this: we continued to have tea and Fitzbillies cakes in the Oriel room every day, enjoying intellectual conversation with the bosses and our more humble colleagues.

At that time (the early seventies) the unions’ grip on the printing industry was beginning to relax. There were some small typesetting operations that didn’t have unions, but most book composition, printing and binding was under the control of the NGA, NATSOPA and SOGAT. Margaret Thatcher broke the closed shop and dealt the unions a nearly mortal blow. I suspect that a good case can be made that industrial operations may be suitable for union/management dealings, while the more fluid publishing structure makes unionization irrelevant and even inappropriate. Union negotiations are always about who gets what share of the pie. As a relatively non-capital-intensive business publishing can’t really be a very good battleground between capital and labor. The bosses and the workers are in pretty much the same relationship to the product: capital doesn’t need its reward in the same way as say a steel mill with its hugely expensive plant. Still there is a cake there, and we to some extent negotiated its division.

Over here it is a commonplace that the unions destroyed the book manufacturing industry in New York City (indeed all industry in New York City). This is obvious nonsense. The unions did what unions should do: negotiated for more money for their members. The reason the industry folded in New York is much more complicated. Wages would be part of it, but rent, transportation problems, inefficient, obsolete equipment, and no doubt a strong dose of management incompetence all share the blame. It takes two sides to negotiate ridiculous manning levels on new machinery, and there were plenty of those. If I am right and what eventually survives of our industry is lots of smaller creative operations, then unions will indeed be a thing of the past in the book world.