Union booksellers held a rally outside the Strand’s flagship location in New York City on Monday afternoon, protesting the store’s labor practices after a year of worsening relations between employees and owner Nancy Bass Wyden.
In preparation for the holiday rush last year, 38 union worker were rehired by the store, but 31 were subsequently laid off again, according to Melissa Guzy, a Strand bookseller who also serves in leadership of the UAW Local 2179. For some booksellers, this was the third time they were laid off since the Covid-19 pandemic upended the store’s business, which was highly dependent on tourism and foot traffic.
“People are struggling. People are struggling right now,” Guzy said. “They're suffering.”
The protest drew more than two dozen booksellers including book workers from nearby Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center. Union members allege labor and contract violations by the Strand, including reassignment of union jobs to non-union managers and the outsourcing of web design and e-commerce functions to non-union vendors. Those allegations led to arbitration between the company and the union. Longtime general manager Eddie Sutton, who left the store in July, will appear at an arbitration hearing on Tuesday (March 2).
In an e-mail to PW, Bass Wyden said, "I am disappointed the union continues to engage in a divisive and false campaign during a time when cooperation and flexibility is more important than ever before. The pandemic has made this the most difficult year in our 94 year history and I continue to be singularly focused on keeping The Strand going. The reality is that despite our best efforts and the incredible support we've experienced from our community we continue to operate at a loss due to the dramatic decrease in foot traffic and business in the city."
Relations between Bass Wyden and union employees have been tense for a number of years, but worsened when filings by Bass Wyden’s husband, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), revealed that the she had purchased stock in Amazon at the outset of the pandemic, while also receiving more than $1 million in payroll protection loans from the federal government. A total of 188 employees were laid off last March. Approximately two-thirds of the staff remains out of work.
With contract negotiations slated to begin this summer, booksellers are anxious that Bass Wyden’s actions signal a rough road ahead. Guzy said the union is bracing for a “union-busting campaign come contract time.”
The issues at the Strand are not isolated and unionization efforts are underway across the publishing industry in numbers not seen in a generation. Employees of Verso unionized last year, as did booksellers at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, at Book Shop Santa Cruz in California, and at several locations of Indigo Books & Music in Canada. Current and former Amazon employees have also led a widening effort to unionize, which was backed by President Biden in remarks yesterday.
“Organizing is always a good thing,” the Strand union’s Guzy said. “It means that people are getting empowered, and that people are getting sick and tired of being sick and tired…It's a national problem. And the only way for workers to address it is to unionize, because if they're not in the union, they have no recourse.”