Those who work in or follow book publishing can now reliably expect to encounter an annual cycle of handwringing over the industry’s lack of diversity. These flurries generally begin with the release of a demographic survey of the workforce, ascend to fever pitch through a bevy of near-identical articles and panel discussions in which the industry elite decries the unbearable whiteness of the industry, then fade to dormancy until the next year’s report comes out and the sequence begins anew. In the past, the catalyst for this progression has been Publishers Weekly’s annual salary survey, which tracks the demographics of publishing employees and, in 2014 and 2015, estimated the industry to be almost 90 percent white. This year it was Lee and Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey, a new report which polled over 3,400 staffers from 34 publishers and eight review outlets and found a workforce that was 79 percent white. In his introduction to the survey’s findings, Lee and Low publisher Jason Low wrote, “By now, it’s no secret that publishing suffers from a major lack of diversity problem.”

Indeed, book publishing has been discussing its shortage of non-white employees since at least the 1990s, and the conversation today looks much as it did over two decades ago. In 1994, Calvin Reid wrote, “Ask most people in the publishing industry about diversity among their employees and you’ll probably get back a one-liner: ‘Don’t you mean lack of diversity?’” While the intervening 20 years have seen the rise of social media as a potent accelerant for public scrutiny of the issue, concrete solutions for recruiting more people of color to the industry remain elusive. Some professionals have touted corporate diversity programs; Macmillan executives, for example, told Lee and Low in February that the company had established a “Diversity and Inclusion Council” in order to set “priorities for programs and activities aimed at enhancing diversity.” But evidence of the efficacy of corporate diversity programs has been scant, both within book publishing and beyond it—where, according to recent findings in the Harvard Business Review, HR-led diversity initiatives tend not to make companies fairer or increase minority representation.

How, then, might publishing contend with its diversity problem in a way that does more than tread old ground? It’s possible that part of the answer lies in bridging the issues of diversity and labor, which have often existed as separate conversations. Demographic counts that consider only representation, like the Diversity Baseline Survey, obscure a number of other inequalities in the industry. For instance, while the Diversity Baseline Survey shows that women “dominate” the industry at 78 percent of its workforce, according to the 2015 Publishers Weekly salary report, a significant gender pay gap still exists, with women making about 70 percent of what their male colleagues do on average. (That same report also found that average salaries for both men and women fell substantially from 2013 to 2014.)

Other industry-wide factors—including low salaries, fierce competition for jobs, few opportunities for advancement or mentorship, and difficult workplace environments—produce a system of interminable professional hoop-jumping that Picador editor Anna Devries has called “a war of attrition where survivors come out the other side many years later by the skin of their teeth.” While many publishing professionals agree that fixing such conditions would help diversify the workforce, there exist few incentives for higher-ups to do so. Even when HR departments have diversity policies or internal hiring targets in place, such measures usually don’t improve job quality in ways that help better retain their employees.

Fifteen years ago, a group of publishing workers found a way to circumvent this problem. In the fall of 2001, staffers at The New Press signed union cards. They had been feeling restless: Salaries were low, as in most book-publishing operations; the work was thankless; and employees reported regular clashes with an overbearing, abrasive manager. The office was too small to accommodate the whole staff; assistants and interns were forced to work at makeshift stations in the hall. One afternoon, Shomial Ahmad, then an editorial assistant, was tasked with a mountain of copying. When the ill-kept machine ground to a halt, it seemed to represent the increasing dysfunction of the office. She joked to a colleague, “We should start a union.” The joke became reality following a series of after-hours gatherings among employees at a Pakistani restaurant down the street from the office. The staff met with a number of union representatives and ultimately decided to join UAW Local 2110.

While The New Press has frequently been singled out as a success story in terms of diverse hiring—editorial director Marc Favreau recently told Publishers Weekly that historically people of color have made up “anywhere from one-third to half” of the staff—Samita Sinha, another former editorial assistant, says that at the time of the union drive, the diversity in the office “lay primarily at the lower levels.” That is, although junior staffers were mostly women of color, management was still all white.

To address this imbalance, The New Press’s first union contract included an affirmative-action clause, among general protections for employees such as overtime pay, annual salary increases, parental leave, and requiring just cause for terminations. The clause, which survives to this day, stipulates that management “make strong and sustained efforts in recruitment, hiring and promotion, in-house training, and mentoring to foster career development” of non-white applicants and employees.

Former New Press executive editor Andrew Hsiao, who’s now a senior editor at Verso Books, was one of the architects of the original affirmative-action provisions. (I worked at Verso, where the staff is not unionized, for a little more than a year.) He believes that unions could help crack open the insular world of publishing in a way that both improves day-to-day working conditions and helps lower-level employees advance in their careers. “Succeeding in publishing, especially in editorial, means navigating a series of informal networks in a notoriously hierarchical industry, often with very little guidance,” Hsiao told me. “The most common way that people move up the ranks is by landing a rare, coveted spot as a powerful person’s assistant. Outside of that apprentice-like situation, there aren’t many ways to advance. But a union can force a company to provide clear paths for moving up.” The current New Press contract, for example, contains provisions that require it to pay for training programs and professional development activities as requested by employees. And more broadly, Hsiao says, unions help foster a sense of collectivity among their members that is often scarce in an industry where employee turnover is high and each new job opening attracts hundreds of applicants. For example, when some of The New Press staff wanted their domestic partners to be eligible for the press’s health coverage, the unit came together to stage a pressure campaign during contract negotiations, which included posting pictures of staffers’ partners all around the office where management would have to see them. It was successful: To this day, employees’ domestic partners are eligible for New Press health coverage under the union contract.

But if a brawny, social justice-minded union in the genteel world of book publishing sounds like a fluke, that’s because it mostly is. The New Press employs a staff of fewer than 30 employees, and the press’s left-leaning mission and output selects for employees who are likely to be invested in collective progress and equality.

The other unionized book publisher, which is also represented by UAW Local 2110, is HarperCollins, whose unit has existed in some capacity since the 1940s. According to its unit chair Renée Cafiero, who has worked for HarperCollins for over 45 years, a hostile management transformed the company from an agency shop to an open shop in 1985, meaning that union membership is now voluntary for employees. “Management back then was so anti-union that it was almost pathological,” Cafiero recalls. “They just refused to renew the agency shop clause in the contract.” She estimates that turnover among bargaining-unit-level staff was (and remains) about one-third, and says that once HarperCollins became an open shop, newcomers didn’t join the union in large numbers.

Under US labor law, employees in an open shop who don’t pay union dues are still covered by the union contract. At HarperCollins, this includes annual salary increases, just cause for termination, healthcare benefits, and overtime pay, among other policies. But the HarperCollins contract doesn’t contain any stipulations that concern diversity, and the union’s steering committee lacks the time and resources to organize more members, including those who might be interested in overseeing such initiatives. In fact, over the last few decades, the union has been so weakened that, according to one entry-level employee, even the basic protections outlined in the contract aren’t always enforced. Overtime pay for employees, for example, has to be approved by supervisors, and the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has “literally never heard of anyone getting it.” As a result, she estimates that she works closer to 50 hours per week than the 35 mandated by the contract—time that would amount to roughly an extra $300 per week were she paid for it. While she’s on good terms with her union rep, she also says, “I get the sense that I couldnt go to them to be like ‘Hey, higher wages would be nice, or an easier overtime approval system, so that it actually matters when Im here late.’”

The mere presence of a union, in other words, is not a silver bullet. Without invested members to agitate for specific contract terms, it’s a safety net at best, and a relatively fragile one. Like all other contract provisions, affirmative-action or diversity clauses exist only through the wishes and the strength of the bargaining unit. And if HarperCollins management is any indication, leaders of the Big Five publishers likely wont embrace the idea of bargaining units. This, however, is precisely why unions stand apart from the top-down diversity initiatives that have previously been proposed. Though their fortunes may be tenuous, they remain one of the few ways that employees are able to wrest power from their managers, who are likely to be older, better paid, and less receptive to industry upheavals.

In Calvin Reid’s 1994 article, Erroll McDonald, who was then executive editor at Pantheon Books, said, “The business of publishing is not to reflect some vision of American democracy, it’s to clock dollars.” And therein lies the uncomfortable reality of selling books, regardless of the nation’s changing demographics. Pie charts of publishing’s racial makeup can temporarily embarrass and diversity-related social media hashtags can trend, but what will finally force another kind of business?