In June 1934, the workers of the Macaulay Company, a publishing house, attempted to join a white-collar trade union, the Office Workers Union. One of the workers was fired, and they subsequently went on strike. This was the first strike in the history of American book publishing. The Marxist magazine New Masses remarked on the strangeness of the incident and the industry in which it took place. Publishing, they wrote, was “like horse-breeding, a snob-and-specialty industry.” Unionization had been rare in the industry because it cultivated “an aura of gentility which leads to self-deception on the part of many workers in it.”
I was an office worker at Columbia University. I had just graduated from college, and I was working in office jobs, thinking I was going to go to graduate school. It was back in the ’80s. We started organizing office workers there, and it quickly became the most compelling thing I was doing in my life.
In many cases, Shawn and only Shawn “knew” why doing Y instead of X would bring ruin to the New Yorker. Our stylebook was to be kept secret. Payment rates for fiction were kept secret. Negative mail about writing was generally kept secret from the magazine’s writers. Negative mail about a short story was often kept secret even from the story’s editor. What appeared to be perfectly innocuous nonfiction assignments were often kept secret. Salaries were, of course, secret.
One day from my doorless office I saw the publisher, John MacArthur, who goes by Rick, look in on Roger, who was eating a croissant at his desk. Rick took note of the breakfast and said he’d come back. A little while later, he went in and shut the door, a thin glass door with a rice-paper blind. Rick’s blurred figure said something indistinct, to which Roger replied, “You’re firin’ me?” with more West Texas than usual, which happened when he was exasperated.
Irving Howe founded Dissent in 1954 — a bleak time for the left. Howe and his cofounders thought the magazine would put out a few issues and then “go bankrupt,” having made a “heroic effort.” The historian Stanley Plastrik and his wife Simone offered their home on the Upper West Side as the “office.” A founding legend is that all the subscriber records were kept in a shoebox shoved in a closet at the end of the workday.
n+1’s first employee was Isaac Scarborough. It’s hard to recall just how he became an employee: he was an NYU student in political science and had been our second-ever intern, and then new interns arrived, so Isaac could no longer be an intern, but he stuck around, doing things — most importantly, entering subscriber information into our FileMaker database. At the time, the n+1 office was located in an apartment shared by two of the editors in Brooklyn, and Isaac would come a few days a week, we would make him some coffee, and he would do his work.