The Unionization of Everything and Other Seismic Shifts

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A number of masked workers posed with raised fists. Also a dog.

It’s 1:30 pm on the last Sunday in January and I am watching and listening to a Zoom presentation coming from East Side Freedom Library (ESFL). You can watch the recording of the presentation, which was also live-streamed on ESFL’s Facebook page, at this link:

East Side Freedom Library panel discussion with UFCW and Half Price Books  

There are two labor-related Zooms on Twin Cities “left Facebook” today and the one I am listening to is about the unionization of four Twin Cities stores in the Half Price Books (HPB) chain – stores in Saint Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, Roseville, St. Louis Park, and Coon Rapids. HPB is the largest bookstore chain in the US with 124 stores. The corporation runs all the stores; there is no franchise model.  

After an introduction from the principal of East Side Freedom Library, Peter Rachleff, hosting is handed over to Jess Alexander, who is an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 663, which helped organize the four stores, along with support from its sister Local 1189 in Minneapolis. The staff of all four won their separate National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union elections in late 2021 and the first week of 2022.  

Aaron, Rachel, Kirstin and Zoe are bookstore workers at each of the four HPB stores that unionized. They have worked for HPB for periods ranging from an unspecified “long time” to 15 years to just less than a year. Jess called on the four in turn, asking each one to describe their experience of going from a union newbie to a seasoned organizer with a successful campaign. Their responses were remarkably consistent.  

Each referred to: 

  • Conversations, lots of them, some hard but all rewarding
  • Getting personal connections at and between all four stores
  • Empowerment from realizing almost everyone else has the same or similar issues
  • More empowerment from putting those issues in the form of demands
  • Final power payoff, when the company responded, were afraid, and once the union was in place, were forced to concede to demands or at least promise to (and knowing they could hold them to their promises) 
  • Kirstin remarked on  how “analog” it was, in this time when connections are mostly digital
  • Several of them and some others involved said variations on “it was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me” (and these were not all young people either.) 

There were out-of-town guests on the call. There were invited guests who weren’t able to make it from Book People in Austin, Texas, and Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. These are nationally famous independent bookstores that have also unionized recently. One guest who was able to make it was Bruce. He talked about his experiences organizing at the famous Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California. Moe’s was organized by the IWW in 2021. As in the union drive at HPB, Moe’s workers sought the union due to conflicts with their boss, owner Doris Moskowitz (daughter of the late founder Moe Moskowitz) over safety and COVID protocols. Unlike the HPB management however, the ultra-liberal Moskowitz quickly voluntarily recognized the union, avoiding the necessity of a vote. Afterwards, however, she remarked to the press that she was “disappointed” in the unionization, and tensions between management and the new union continue. 

These personal stories were followed by a Q&A period, with questions from Peter first, then open questions from the Zoom participants. Peter asked a question about the HPB corporation trying to use the chain model as a “brake” on unionizing by, for instance, saying that they had to wait until every store in the chain organized before they could negotiate. Jess clarified that this is just a tactic, not a principle or a law or anything, and speculated that they must have realized that would backfire in Minnesota. Kirstin also clarified how the workers’ strategy worked; although the stores voted separately, they are negotiating a common contract that will also benefit non-unionized HPB stores. 

Peter commented on how different the corporate response was from the usual script of first  trying to wrest the actual bargaining from the employees and membership by insisting it be put in the hands of lawyers and experts. Instead, they are having unofficial talks immediately with no contract yet. Secondly, HPB is not reflexively stating that items are out of bounds for bargaining, but discussing whatever the staff is most concerned about. (Someone gave the example of Delta Air Lines’ behavior when workers countered Delta’s statement of not being able to afford better benefits by asking how they could afford to repaint all the airplanes’ tail fins every six months. “We don’t have to talk to you about painting the tail fins of the airplane” was their answer.)

During the open phase of Q&A, a great question came from Jaxon, a listener, about the social/community value of bookstores and how that culture plays into their organizing and demands. Staff came up with numerous examples: 

1. The higher wages they will get from unionizing will enable the stores to better retain those great “overqualified” staff who make the store a unique neighborhood institution.  

2. One of their demands is for a policy change to stop locking the dumpsters and let people get free books. Because of their liberal buying policy, HPB gets a dumpster-full of unsaleable books every week. 

 3. There were many instances of customers celebrating the union with the staff in the store. At Politics and Prose, customer backlash stopped management from pursuing an anti-union campaign with a union-busting law firm. 

4. COVID protocols changed the buying policy and cut down the influx of “too much stuff,” removing the logjam in space and time it caused. Sales actually increased, even with fewer customers in the store. Staff asked the management if they could continue the COVID policy because it was more efficient and even more profitable. But the corporation made them go back to the old policies, even though they were at half-staff, so it was even worse.

5. Some audience members also commented that their neighborhood or nearest bookstore became a refuge for people who would normally be major library patrons during the nearly-a-year when public libraries across the Twin Cities and the country were closed. 

Here are some links to other bookstores that have unionized due to COVID: 

Moe’s Books, Berkeley CA

Book People, Austin TX

Politics and Prose, Washington DC

Moe’s Books in Berkeley Californis

Be sure to watch the panel in the video linked at the top of this article. I was only able to skim the surface of some of the great and inspiring discussions you will hear, whether you love bookstores, or love unions, or love both equally like I do.

by Deb K. R.