This week, publishing workers at Oxford University Press USA in New York City announced their intention to form a union to fight for better working conditions and changes at their workplace and beyond. The workers at OUP USA are joining the NewsGuild-CWA, which represents over 24,000 journalists, media, and nonprofit workers, including employees at The Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune. This unionization effort follows closely on the heels of workers at Duke University Press, who announced their own union drive in March, as well as several successful unionization efforts across the publishing industry over the last several years.
Oxford University Press is the largest university press in the world, publishing in over 50 languages and producing over 6,000 titles a year. The workers now forming a union in the New York office are the ones who make this work possible. If OUP is able to provide educational and research material to schools and universities across the globe — turning a profit for the press and the university itself each year — it is because of the labor these workers provide each day. They perform a variety of tasks at all stages of the publication process, from editorial work on books and journals to support, sales, and marketing for a wide array of materials.
As the press has sustained and increased its output and profits over the years, its workers have been the ones to bear the brunt of massive changes to the industry, weathering low pay, job cuts, high turnover, inconsistent work practices, and policies that ensure patterns of discrimination both in the workplace and in hiring. The workers at Oxford University Press’s branch in New York are unionizing in an attempt to address a host of issues both specific to OUP and more broadly to the publishing industry. In a press release announcing the union drive, the workers state that they are organizing to demand:
Job security in a diverse workplace
Dignified salary and benefits that keep pace with cost of living
Defined responsibilities, reporting structures, workload, and company policies
Improved career development and evaluative processes
Comprehensive action to resolve issues of sexual harassment and the longstanding, unsustainable rate of attrition
It is no coincidence that the union drive is going public a year after the coronavirus pandemic began, which brought sweeping changes to the press, including layoffs and structural changes. Now more than ever, the workers spearheading this effort see their union as a way to stand together and fight for their own interests. As one assistant editor said about the effort, “OUP employees need a voice in our workplace. Decisions about compensation, layoffs, the organization of departments and job duties — these things affect our lives profoundly, so we need to have a seat at the table to ensure that our interests are represented.”
The union effort has already brought these workers together to fight for their interests on a variety of issues affecting them and their communities, such as fighting for racial justice in response to the uprising against police brutality and workplace safety during the pandemic.
The union drive has received an avalanche of support from unions across industries, including statements from academic workers’ unions in universities across the country. PSC CUNY, which represents faculty and staff at the City University of New York, and UAW 2865, which represents student employees in the University of California system, have sent statements to the OUP executive committee urging it to recognize the union. Hundreds of authors who publish with OUP have also signed a petition in support of the effort, and have taken to Twitter to encourage the effort and the tireless work of the organizing committee.
In the context of emerging labor activity in publishing and similar sectors, a union at Oxford University Press is a significant step down the path of rank-and-file organizing for better conditions across the publishing industry. The fight that these workers are waging to improve their own working conditions will set the bar for workplaces in related sectors and pave the way for workers in this industry to fight for their interests in the workplace and beyond.