We’re standing up for book/journal publishing workers

Publishing workers in Oxford will be aware their pay is among the lowest earned by graduates, they know about the unfair pay discrepancies, the long hours culture, and that being valued and treated with respect at work is heavily dependent on having a competent and supportive line manager. What many of them don’t know, however, is that this sector used to be a better place to work – and could be again.

We in the Oxford NUJ branch want to make that happen. We are reaching out to everyone working in publishing in Oxford to join us in this quest. Specifically, we are looking to work with the Society of Young Publishers and Unite to get publishing workers talking to one another about how to get the most out of the work we do. We are interested in how we can all work together to ensure that, in this period of rapid change:

  • Publishing remains a place where traditional values of creativity, diversity and quality are valued and rewarded
  • The expanding areas of multimedia and digital publishing enhance and add value to content, but don’t become the main drivers
  • Everyone gets the opportunity expand their skills and exploit the new career opportunities opening up
  • The people who do the work have an effective say over both their terms and conditions and professional aspects of their work and working environment.

We don’t want to talk about turning the clock back. We do want to talk about some of the valuable things that have been lost, and how we can regain them. And we want to open up a discussion with everyone working in Oxford’s publishing industry about priorities and what we can achieve by working together.


Aside from Oxford University Press, which is bound up with the earliest days of printing in the city, much of Oxfordshire’s publishing industry today is based on companies that relocated here in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Companies like Butterworth Scientific (now part of Elsevier in Kidlington), Heinemann (relocated to Elsevier’s Harcourt site in Jordan Hill, Summertown, but now part of Pearson at the same site) and Routledge (now part of Taylor & Francis in Didcot) had some of the best organised chapels in the NUJ, and had negotiated good terms and conditions for their members over a period of many years. But as most of the staff chose not to make the move to Oxford (thanks in part to generous redundancy agreements they had negotiated!), the chapels were hugely weakened. Managements took the opportunity to terminate the union agreements, and as a direct result they have been able to systematically increase workloads while pushing down real pay and driving down terms and conditions.

A salary survey conducted in 2006 at Harcourt (then part of Reed Elsevier, now Pearson) –  showed that salary levels had dropped from around 80% of average white collar earnings in 1991 to less than 60%. The concept of being paid ‘the rate for the job’,  with transparency about grades and negotiated pay scales, has been replaced by schemes ostensibly linking pay to performance, which seem to be designed to squeeze the most they can from each employee while concealing what are often significant and unjustifiable pay discrepancies between people doing similar work. The general workplace culture has also changed for the worse.  Where once working lives were organised by negotiation and agreement, roles and responsibilities were clear, hours were specified, today it can feel as if there are no limits to what can be demanded of you and what you can be held responsible for.

Before Butterworth Scientific was bought by Reed Elsevier and relocated to Oxford to it had transparent pay scales that were negotiated annually along with contractual hours, rates for voluntary overtime and more. The same was true for Heinemann, Routledge and Macmillan. The starting salary of £13,564 shown here for an editorial assistant (Grade 6) is worth £22,176 in today’s money – well above the starting salary currently paid by Elsevier. We don’t call that progress.


butterworth pay 1990048

Transparent, negotiated salary scales, like these featured in the 1990-1991 NUJ Annual Survey of House Agreements in Book and Magazine Publishers, meant people were paid according to the job they did and the responsiblity they had, rather than a secret figure based on what the company felt it could get away with



We’ve spent time in recent weeks discussing members of our book chapels, with members of the Society of Young Publishers and with Unite activists about a broad, inclusive initiative exploring what we can do to make publishing in Oxford a better place to work. These talks have resulted in a preliminary suggestion for a series of high-profile events that we build for within all the big publishing workplaces in the area, possibly starting this September, which will now be further discussed by the constituent groups to make sure it reflects key interests and concerns of their members and can capture their enthusiasm.

Watch this space for the finalised proposals, which we hope will be ready by the end of April.

If you work in books and journals publishing in the Oxfordshire area, as a staff or freelance, in any capacity, this is about you and your work. We would love you to get involved and contribute your own  ideas and help shape and organise this unique and long overdue initiative.  Contact us at oxfordnuj@gmail.com


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