After Silicon Valley future forecaster Jane McGonigal's opening keynote on Tuesday morning, the ABA's virtual Snow Days shifted gears and delved into a hot topic that has roiled the industry in recent years: unionization. “Unions 101 for Booksellers and Bookstores” featured two speakers from both sides of the issue who walked booksellers through the intricacies of collective bargaining. Jon Hiatt is a labor lawyer for 47 years and who from 1995-2017 served as general counsel and then chief of staff for the AFL-CIO, and Mark R. Reiss is a New York City-based labor lawyer who for the past 30 years has represented employers dealing with collective bargaining and arbitrations.

Noting that approximately 40 ABA members are unionized workplaces, CEO Allison Hill introduced the session by explaining that the ABA was prompted to host a panel on unions that was “informative [and] balanced,” because both owners and employees have solicited the ABA for information and guidance.

“We heard from bookstore owners wanted to know things like what happens if they're presented with union cards or what to expect from the unionization process,” she said, noting that the unionization process varies from bookstore to bookstore. “We've heard from booksellers who wanted to know what questions they should be asking, and what the unionization process might look like for them,.”

Hill emphasized that, “regardless of whether a store is unionized or not, we really want to focus our support on conversations about livable wages, dignity, and flexibility for workers and good communication between owners and workers, because we believe that those things are in everyone's best interest.”

Bookstore Employees Want Dignity, Respect

While a drive towards unionization is usually ascribed to employee dissatisfaction with wages and/or working conditions and/or job security, Reiss explained there are also less obvious factors prompting employees to unionize, especially “the perception of a lack of dignity or appreciation or respect from management.”

Reiss pointed out that the positives of unionizing include a consistency in the employer-employee relationship, explaining that “benefits, time off, seniority will now be in one place” --namely the union contract that has been agreed upon by the two parties. The contract will also ensure standardized processes and procedures in handling workplace issues. There are also negatives to the contract, Reiss pointed out, such as a lack of flexibility on the part of employers to respond to changing conditions in the workplace, and an emphasis on seniority over merit. In terms of promotions, for example, Reiss said, “The employer cannot dictate; likewise, an employee who may feel they are the most qualified person may not get the position.”

Hiatt explained that the resurgence in union drives by workers today seems to be motivated by their desire to have more of a voice in their future “to discuss and have input with the employer on a variety of issues” – like job security and career advancement—or in the case several years ago of Gawker employees -- more say over editorial content as well.

In the bookstore sector, Hiatt pointed out, “You have a largely highly educated group of employees who are very committed and loyal to the work and to the store. They don't want to put their store out of business any more than you do. What is motivating them often is not huge wage increases, but rather grievance procedures, scheduling issues, having a labor management committee that can deal with new issues that arise, DEI issues, and so on.”

Hiatt suggested that bookstore owners and employees alike might want to examine the collective bargaining agreements already hammered out by unionized bookstores: “There are now a good number around the country that have been unionized and more that are in the process,” he said, “It might be worth looking into, just to see what kinds of issues get typically addressed there.”

The ABA promised anonymity to the booksellers asking questions during the Q&A, and those questions ranged from timing in terms of unionizing, to the definition of manager versus employee, whether “happy staffs” would want to organize, and how unionizing can provide dignity and respect.

Unions are, Hiatt pointed out, “a way of giving [employees] more input, better ways of communicating their views about different aspects of the employer-employee relationship. That does affect dignity and respect. The bottom line is that what people mean by dignity and respect is the ability to have a more equitable relationship with the employer, to sit at the table and through their own representative share their views more officially and more efficiently.”