Pandemic sparks union activity where it was rare: Bookstores

Britta Larson, a team leader at Half Price Books in Roseville, Minnesota, has worked in the store for almost 12 years, but has only recently given thought to her intention to join a union.

“With the pandemic underway, we were all just tired of the constant layoffs we had when we brought our staff and workload concerns to senior management,” Larson said, noting that staff had was reduced when the store closed for a while and was “extremely stretched” once it reopened.

“Before the pandemic I would say we sort of thought ‘Things aren’t great’ because that was all we had ever known. The pandemic forced us to do some things differently and we got out of it. the lessons. “

Union action has increased in many industries over the past two years, including the sale of books, a business where unions were rare. As of 2020, employees have organized or are attempting to unionize everywhere from Printed Matter in New York to Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle and Bookshop Santa Cruz in California. In Minnesota, workers at four Half Price Books stores have announced plans to join locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

“I think COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for bookstore workers, and really for anyone who works with the public,” says Owen Hill, a buyer at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, Calif., Who is more unionized. early this year. “We had nothing to say about safe working conditions, even if we risked our health by reporting to work. We had to organize ourselves to be part of the conversation about worker safety. “

The publishing world has no magnet for those looking to get rich. Selling books, especially independent book sales, has a long affinity with liberal politics and a long sense of mission that transcends the desire to make a profit. Larson told The Associated Press that she and her colleagues at Half Price would rather unionize than quit because of their “enjoyment of books and their love of our work as a bookseller.”

But when workers organize, even the most progressive owners can oppose it.

Moe’s Books was co-founded in 1959 by cigar smoker Moe Moskowitz, a longtime activist and agitator known in part for letting his store serve as a haven for anti-war protesters in the 1960s. Moe’s is now run by his daughter, Doris Moskowitz, who spoke about the store’s egalitarian atmosphere and the tradition of valuing dissent and social conscience.

But when staff announced their affiliation with the World Industrial Workers Union (IWW) in March, Moskowitz acknowledged mixed feelings, telling digital news site Berkeleyside that the “decision to organize, which I deeply respect for a political point of view, left me very sad and confused. In September, workers picketed the store and alleged unfair labor practices (denied by Moskowitz), although Hill says the situation has changed. has since improved.

“After many ups and downs and major disagreements, the parties have come together,” said Hill. “We are focused on a contract and both parties are negotiating in good faith. I expect we will vote on a new contract right after Thanksgiving (fingers crossed). I think the management realized that both parties are committed to keeping the store open – we are such an important part of the community.

In a recent email to the AP, Moskowitz wrote: “Booksellers across the country are participating in an important conversation. We are proud to be a part of it, and we are particularly proud of the progress made towards our first employment contract. “

Half Price Books also has its roots in the anti-establishment. It was co-founded in 1972 by Ken Gjemre, a former Zale executive who, in his middle years, wanted to earn a living more in line with his ideals as a pacifist, environmentalist and civil libertarian. A 2003 article in PR Week, published a year after Gjemre’s death, described Half Price as “forgiving and generous to its unconventional workforce, which is dotted with aging hippies and liberal arts majors.”

Half Price has grown from a former laundromat in Dallas to over 100 locations across the country. In response to a request for comment on ongoing union action in Minnesota, Kathy Doyle Thomas, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Half Price Books, said in a statement, “Half Price Books is working hard to ” offer competitive advantages and good working conditions to all 1,900 employees. Across the country. We understand that there is a movement to organize workers and we respect employees’ right to vote. We undertake to follow all procedures required by law.

The company sent a different message to the employees. In a statement released for some time in some of the stores in Minnesota, workers were told that Half Price would oppose unionization “with all legal means at our disposal.” Forming a union, the company added, was “a very serious decision, which could affect your professional future and the future of those who depend on you. We believe that once you get all the facts about the union, you will decide that our future will be better without a union.

Some owners say they are at peace with the unions despite the tensions. When staff at McNally Jackson stores in New York organized in 2019, owner Sarah McNally admitted the action was initially a shock that “offended” her “independent spirit.” But now she says the union has brought clarity and structure to everything from salaries to job descriptions, and made overall store management more efficient.

At Green Apple Books in San Francisco, part-owner Pete Mulvihill had just joined the staff when workers joined the local UFCW about 30 years ago, and he recalls a “brutal” process that included picketing, layoffs and “an incredible amount of money spent on legal bills. He says spirits still rise when contracts are negotiated every three years, but he thinks staff and management are largely united as” book lovers sharing the same ideas ”.

“It helps to have clear written policies on things like scheduling, health insurance and paid time off,” he says. “It also sets realistic expectations for incoming staff about what the store can offer in compensation. And San Francisco is historically a working-class city, so I think customers feel good knowing that our employees are supported by a union. “

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