Pro-union Harper's Publisher Changes Tune as His Employees Unionize

If liberalism is more "academic" than conservatism, it's because it looks a lot better in a classroom (or a newsroom) than it does in real life. Just ask Harper's Magazine publisher John "Rick" MacArthur.

In a recent article, New York magazine detailed an ongoing fight at Harper's between MacArthur and his recently-unionized staff. MacArthur fought hard against unionization, and is now trying to lay off a veteran at the magazine who, according to NY mag, "played a key role in the union drive." The newly-formed union says the effort "is pure retaliation."

The irony of the situation has the righty blogosphere giggling: despite his vehement efforts to prevent unionization, MacArthur and his magazine have a history of supporting the labor movement.

NY magazine reported:

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. This was about Ben Metcalf becoming editor and they were against Ellen.”

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, who in 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.

MacArthur hired veteran employment lawyer Bert Pogrebin, who had previously faced off against the Village Voice union, to negotiate on his behalf. In August, the matter was taken up by the National Labor Relations Board. Pogrebin tried to get many of Harper’s' editors, including Metcalf and senior editors Donovon Hohn and Chris Cox, excluded from the union on the grounds that were in management positions. In September, the NLRB ruled that Metcalf and the others could join the union. In October, the NLRB denied MacArthur’s appeal, and the union went ahead with plans to hold elections that would certify the union. Staffers put up signs around the office and a ballot box was placed in the conference room.

On October 13, the day before elections were scheduled, MacArthur sent a letter to the staff lobbying employees to vote against the union. “I confess that I remain confused about the goal of the people seeking union representation,” he wrote, “but I have to assume it has something to do with my firing of Roger, objections to my promoting Ellen over Ben, and general insecurity about the future of the magazine.” MacArthur wrote that forming a union “will not, as some have requested, give any of you a great voice in the selection of the next editor,” and added, “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.”

On October 14, staffers certified the union and formally joined UAW Local 2110.

MacArthur had lauded unionization in writings beyond the April 2009 article NY mag mentioned - which, of course, praised the same union, the UAW, that now represents Harper's employees. Two years earlier he bemoaned "the bipartisan bludgeoning of labor unions into nothingness."

(Harper's has generally been, editorially, a pro-union publication. The magazine's left-wing Washington Editor, Ken Silverstein, has written numerous articles extremely friendly to union interests. In one, he described efforts to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act as "the latest onslaught in a business crusade to destroy the labor movement" - hardly a neutral presentation of the issue.)

But now MacArthur is in the position of having to deal with some of the consequences of unionization, and all of a sudden the labor movement is not looking so helpful.