Harper’s vs. UAW

When can one expect leftists to oppose unionization of a business? When it’s their own.

That’s the case at Harper‘s magazine right now, where some members of the staff are leading a union organizing drive, which publisher John “Rick” MacArthur is actively opposing.

The tale takes some strange, and sometimes even amusing, turns — and even provides some occasions for libertarian Schadenfreude. As New York magazine reports:

The current crisis began a year ago, when MacArthur fired the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Roger Hodge. The two men had once been close, but their relationship had frayed as the red ink mounted: Newsstand sales dropped, MacArthur’s appetite for losses waned, and Hodge tried to defend the staff from cuts.

Then things got weird, as MacArthur revealed some not-so-progressive views on online publishing and employee relations.

A couple of months after Hodge’s firing, senior editor Donovon Hohn helped to convene a meeting about publishing Harper’s on the iPad. MacArthur didn’t attend. But shortly thereafter, staffers began receiving xeroxed articles from MacArthur in their mailboxes that trashed the iPad and Kindle. One article from the Spectator had a hand-typed line at the top:

To: Hoipolloi
From: Rick

Last month, MacArthur wrote a column for the Providence Journalsubsequently posted on Harper’s‘ website, that bashed the Internet. “I never found e-mail exciting,” he wrote. “My skepticism stemmed from the suspicion that the World Wide Web wasn’t, in essence, much more than a gigantic, unthinking Xerox machine …”

Some staffers then contacted UAW Local 2110 (which also represents employees of Harper Colllins, The Village Voice, and The New Press). MacArthur wasn’t amused.

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.

MacArthur might elicit some sympathy for his efforts to keep his enterprise from being burdened with the bureaucratization and higher labor costs that unionization usually brings — but not much. That’s because a great deal of Rick MacArthur’s leftist advocacy — of which he has a long history — has been fueled by money that was never intended for the purposes to which he put it to use.

Rick MacArthur’s grandfather was John D. MacArthur, whose fortune went into the large foundation that now bears his name and is a big funder of progressive causes. Rick MacArthur’s father, Roderick MacArthur, led the foundation’s sharp turn to the left — an effort that Rick has carried on. However, as journalist Martin Morse Wooster explains, the elder MacArthur never envisioned that.

John D. MacArthur was a hardheaded entrepreneur who created Bankers Life and Trust, a pioneering insurance company. But when MacArthur died in 1978 at age 80, he made the worst mistake a donor could possibly make:  he left his fortune to charity without instructions on how it should be spent.

In a 1982 interview with Foundation News, MacArthur’s lawyer, William Kirby, said that MacArthur told him, “Bill, I’m going to do what I know best, I’ll make it.  But you people, after I’m dead, will have to learn how to spend it.”  Kirby said that on several occasions he asked MacArthur “to do something big for charities.”  MacArthur explained that he wanted to defer the disposition of his fortune until after his death: “If I was trying to decide who to give the money to right now, I couldn’t sit at this coffee table, because I’d be bothered day and night.  They’d all be after me to try and get my money, and I couldn’t lead the life I want to lead.  So leave me in peace.”

When the MacArthur Foundation began, conservatives, most notably William Simon, dominated its board.  But a titanic power struggle soon occurred, led by MacArthur’s far more liberal son, J. Roderick MacArthur. The conservatives were all ousted from the board by 1981, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has been a reliably liberal institution ever since.

A 2003 interview of Rick MacArthur in a Columbia University alumni magazine adds another detail:

“In the first couple of years, it’s just a pitched battle, except that my father loses every vote.” Then, Roderick persuaded the conservative board to add liberal academics “to make it more even ideologically.”

These days, the “balance” is entirely gone, and the foundation entirely leans left.

Now, as Rick MacArthur and his staff fight it out, the rest of us can sit back and watch the fireworks.

For more on labor, see here and here.