Thursday, December 2, 2021

The pandemic has sparked union activity in places where it has rarely been: bookstores

NEW YORK (AP) – Britta Larson, shift manager at Half Price Books in Roseville, Minnesota, has been in the store for almost 12 years but has just recently wondered if she wants to join a union.

“With the ongoing pandemic, we were all just tired of the constant layoffs we received when we raised concerns about the staffing and workload of senior management,” Larson said, noting that staff was laid off when the store temporarily closed and “ stretched out very thin ”after reopening.

“Before the pandemic, I would say we would just think, ‘It’s not that good,’ because that was all we ever knew. The pandemic has forced us to act differently and we have learned from that. “

Union activity has skyrocketed over the past two years in many industries, including the book trade, a business where unions were rare. Since 2020, employees have teamed up or are trying to do so on everything from Printed Matter in New York to the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle and the Santa Cruz bookstore in California. In Minnesota, workers at four Half Price Books stores have announced plans to join local residents at United Food and Commercial Workers.

“I think COVID-19 has been a rude awakening for bookstore workers, and indeed for everyone who works with the public,” says Owen Hill, a buyer at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California, which joined unions earlier this year. … “We were not given a say in safe working conditions, although we risked our health by coming to work. We had to organize to get involved in the conversation about occupational safety. “

The publishing world does not appeal to those seeking to get rich. The bookselling, especially the independent, has a long association with liberal politics and a long understanding of mission that transcends the desire to make a profit. Larson told The Associated Press that she and other Half Price employees would rather join unions than leave because of their “enjoyment of books and love for our work as booksellers.”

But when workers unite, even the most progressive-minded property owners may object.

Moe’s Books co-founded in 1959 cigar smoker Mo Moskowitz, a longtime activist and agitator best known in part for his store serving 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 appreciating dissent and public conscience.

But when staff announced in March that they were joining the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Moskowitz acknowledged mixed feelings, telling digital news site Berkeleyside that “the decision to form a union, which I deeply respect politically, left me very sad and confused. ” In September, workers staged a picket in the store and declared unfair working conditions (denied by Moskowitz), although Hill says the situation has improved since then.

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

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

Half Price Books also has its roots in the anti-establishment. He was co-founded in 1972 by Ken Gemre, a former Zale CEO who, in middle age, wanted to make a living in line with his ideals of a pacifist, environmentalist, and civil libertarian. In a 2003 article in PR Week, published a year after Jemre’s death, Half Price was described as “condescending and generous to her unconventional workforce, seasoned with aging hippies and humanities.”

Half Price has grown from a former laundry facility in Dallas to over 100 locations nationwide. In response to a request for comment on ongoing labor disputes in Minnesota, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Katie Doyle Thomas said, “Half Price Books is committed to providing a competitive edge and a good working environment for all 1,900 employees. across the country. We understand that there is a movement to organize workers and we respect the right of employees to vote. We are committed to following all procedures required by law. ”

The company sent a different message to employees. In a statement released briefly in some Minnesota stores, workers were told that Half Price would oppose union formation “by all legal means available to us.” The company added that the union was “a very serious decision that could affect your future at work and the future of those who depend on you. We believe that when you get all the facts about the union, you decide that our future will be better without the union. “

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

At Green Apple Books in San Francisco, co-owner Pete Mulvihill just joined the staff when workers joined the local UFCW about 30 years ago, and he recalls a “brutal” process involving picketing, layoffs and “huge amounts of money spent.” on legal accounts “. He says sentiment is still on the rise when contracts are awarded every three years, but he believes the staff and management are pretty much united as “like-minded book lovers.”

“It’s helpful to have clear, written rules about things like scheduling, health insurance, and paid leave,” he says. “It also sets realistic expectations for incoming staff about what the store has to offer in compensation. And San Francisco is historically a work town, so I think clients feel good knowing that our employees are supported by the union. ”

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