No single event has wiped out more bookselling jobs in the modern era than the Covid-19 pandemic, which sparked thousands of furloughs and layoffs at bookstores across America. For relief, booksellers can turn to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, but beyond that, few have any protections. That is, unless they have a union.
There are few unions at America’s bookshops, but they exist at medium- and large-size stores in cities where they may be the most needed because of the high cost of living. San Francisco’s Green Apple Books has one; New York City’s Strand Bookstore also has one, which may be the nation’s oldest bookstore union. Other stores have had high-profile battles with owners who have resisted unionization efforts, including, most recently, New York’s Housing Works.
But one sign that unions may have a place amid today’s tumultuous bookselling environment is what happened at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, where management embraced a union formed at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. Bookseller and Book Workers Union cofounder Jacob Schear said his colleagues were anxious about unionizing during such a serious crisis. “We were asking, is this the right time to go public with this?” Schear recalled. “But we decided it was essential, entering this moment of economic uncertainty, to be organized, have a voice, and have a seat at the table with management in order to work together during this time.”
The bold move paid off. Two dozen employees announced the formation of the union on March 24, and the store’s management recognized them within 24 hours. Schear said he believes that management understood the potential for a positive partnership. “They didn’t buy into the more pernicious sense of unions,” he added.
The day after the announcement, the store closed to in-person shopping and the union began taking steps to advocate for its members, creating a contract for severance pay and a moratorium on job termination. Even while disruptions from the pandemic persist, employees are beginning the process of planning longer-term contract negotiations. Given the store’s small size, the union is unaffiliated, but it has received advice and support from Seattle’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Many of the union’s goals involve working as a partner with management to address the impact of Seattle’s high cost of living and the job insecurity that results from it. “Ultimately, it’s a way of ensuring democracy in the workplace,” Schear said. “We’re minimum-wage workers living in a very expensive city. Folks wanted a way to feel like their labor was valued, that their ideas could be leveraged. They wanted a new way of communicating with management and making sure Elliott Bay is investing in employees who want to stay there.”
Powell’s Books in Portland, one of Elliott Bay’s Northwest bookselling compatriots, has one of the country’s largest bookselling unions, affiliated with ILWU and run by a small army of booksellers. Due to the pandemic, however, all of that skidded to a halt in mid-March. “They sent us all home and said they didn’t know what they were going to do,” book buyer McKenzie Workman said. A few days later, more than 400 booksellers were laid off.
“This situation was so different that the company had to make up a new plan, and it wasn’t like any layoff we’d ever seen,” Workman noted, adding that “the union was the only place that had answers” for workers."
The union also took action. Coordinated mass emails were sent out to help booksellers sign up for unemployment while union representatives worked with owner Emily Powell, supporting steps that could ensure the long-term survival of the stores. Those steps included agreeing to waive part of the union’s contract and support a furlough. Because the contract requires the store to preferentially rehire employees, the union felt comfortable agreeing to the arrangement without fearing that others might retake its employees’ jobs when Powell’s eventually reopened.
The collaborative approach was an intentional one, said union leader Ryan Van Winkle. “Unemployment is not Emily Powell’s failure, it’s a failure of government,” he said. “We realize that Powell’s is going through a thing right now, and it’s important that the company survive.”
Van Winkle emphasized that the union does not agree with Powell’s management on everything, but the union has been flexible regarding hours for reopened shifts and new arrangements that prioritize safety. At the same time, the union has established a worker fund, and community members can purchase books from Powell’s through the union’s site to support furloughed employees.
Six months into the crisis, some employees are back to work, Workman included, but a great deal of uncertainty remains. The flagship Powell’s Burnside location reopened partially in late August, bringing 20 workers back onto the sales floor. A crucial milestone in the union’s contract comes soon when some worker protections will be loosened, with serious ramifications for the store’s seniority and rehire agreements. For the employees, a love for the store and its role in the community keeps them going, but fear persists, partly because of limited communication from Powell’s leadership.
“I would be lying if I said I don’t have a new sense of vulnerability about how I feel about my company and workplace and about my boss, because that is there,” Workman said. “But Powell’s is such an important fixture in the Portland community, and for all of their faults—because they are a profit-driven company—I think there are some smart minds making choices for the business side. I hope.”