If indie bookstores lean progressive, grassroots organizing is testing their lefty mettle. Book Soup in West Hollywood and Page 1 Books in Albuquerque, N.Mex., are only the latest to unionize in what may be a generational and Covid-related trend. Over the past two years in particular, pandemic stress and uncertainty have led to frontline bookstore workers feeling unsafe and overburdened.

Unions represent a way of taking collective rather than individual action, and successful union drives at Bookshop Santa Cruz in California, Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, and Moe’s Books in Berkeley, Calif., appear to have emboldened new organizers. At Snow Days 2022 earlier his year, ABA convened a webinar on unionization’s pros and cons with labor lawyer Jon Hiatt and collective bargaining specialist Mark R. Reiss. The ABA went to great lengths to maintain confidentiality of those who attended and asked questions via Zoom, indicating the sensitivity of this subject matter.

Staffers who had been accustomed to business as usual had a chance to reconsider their working conditions and everyday risks when stores closed in 2020. In union shops like Portland, Ore.’s Powell’s Books (ILWU Local 5, established in 1999), disputes arose when management recalled laid-off employees. In non-union shops, new hires that came aboard during the pandemic felt an urgency to reshape the workplace—sometimes with long-standing coworkers’ encouragement, sometimes not.

At Book Soup, a division of Vroman’s in West Hollywood, Calif., Hazel Angell started a job as supervisor in summer 2021. (Angell previously worked at Book Soup six years ago and called it “the best job I ever had.”) People who had been furloughed or on leave were just returning, and only 10–15 customers were allowed in the store at a time. As mask mandates and customer limits were lifted, “someone at Vroman’s decided we were fully operational again,” Angell said. Whispers about unionizing led to grassroots efforts, and Vroman’s recognized the union in June 2022. A contract has yet to be negotiated, Angell said, and workers remain strapped (“Right now we have a Clive Barker campaign with hundreds of internet orders, and we have to process all these orders on a weekend with only four other employees in the store”).

Recent hires are often quick to recognize room for improvement and push for unionization. Bookseller and organizer Heather Freeman recently celebrated her one-year anniversary with Page 1 Books, though she has been a customer for years. “To us as bookseller staff, it looks like the store is doing well,” Freeman said. “There are lots of customers, lots of transactions every day, but the thing is, we’re wearing a lot of different hats. A person can be doing customer service, shelving, book returns, receiving, all in quick succession,” making the labor unsustainable.

Tori Cardenas started his bookselling job at Page 1 in April, after grassroots organizing as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. Among his goals are “to keep up with inflation and with rental costs,” he said. “If I can’t even afford a reliable place to live, how can I keep working at this job?”

Labor of love

One unforeseen consequence of unionization is that a large number of workers, including young activists, move on after their unions are established. At Moe’s Books, whose union contract was ratified in November 2021, at least five employees who took an active role in organizing are no longer with the store, including Noah Ross, Owen Hill, and Kalie McGuirl (McGuirl penned a pro-union blog post about Moe’s for Verso in May 2022). In an email, Ross emphasized that even though he and the others left Moe’s, he and two fellow IWW delegates “stayed on [with the local] to help with our contract in the hopes that they could create a nontoxic work environment for future workers.”

Victor Serrano, an organizing coordinator for CWA District 9 (whose affiliates include Book Soup, Bookstore Santa Cruz, and Skylight Books in L.A.), explained that resignations are common after unionization. He believes that workers unite around shared labor principles and a desire to improve companies for the workers who come after them.

“Forming a union is a lot of work, and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t care,” said Angell, of Book Soup. “I love this store, I love my coworkers, I love bookselling work—it is one of my greatest joys. The unionizing is to ensure that this industry can survive. You can’t pride yourself on not being Amazon and then not give your workers safety and respect.”

At Bookshop Santa Cruz, which ratified its contract on July 8, manager Casey Coonerty Protti said some organizers were connected to a graduate student strike at UC Santa Cruz and sought “a progressive outcome for social justice.” After unionizing the store, Protti added, “the vast majority of them left. The bargaining committee, which had been five people, was down to one person at the end. Our retention of regular workers didn’t change; it was normal.” An 18 to 10 vote to unionize, with three eligible employees not voting, meant a 58% majority ruled. Even so, Protti found the process “hard on employees who have been here a long time.”

Prior to the union, Protti explained, “there was a small pay range for the off-floor positions, so you would start at something and move up to the top part of that range. In general, unions find ranges to be subjective, so they prefer to have a set wage.” With “a more democratized pay scale that eliminated ranges,” a six-year employee and a new hire with the same off-floor position make the same hourly wage at Bookshop Santa Cruz. “Now, that same is $2 more than they were making before,” Protti said. “So it’s not to say one system is better than another. You have to weigh all the impacts.”

At Elliott Bay, booksellers refer to themselves as book workers. They established their own Book Workers Union rather than affiliating as a local with a shop like IWW or CWA. After consulting with workers at the Frye Art Museum and other leaders in the Seattle labor community, “we believed that going independent would give us the maximum ability to build the organization,” said BWU cochair and seven-year Elliott Bay book worker Sam Karpp. “There are pitfalls, like a ton of back-end labor that needs to be done. We had to set up bank accounts, register for nonprofit status, develop a constitution and bylaws. But it was important to us that the rank and file be the central movers in our organization.” He added that the BWU is open to affiliates, ideally in the same geographic region.

Like other shops, it has seen some attrition. Three-year Elliott Bay book worker Ellis Breunig no longer works at the store, yet cochairs the BWU to fulfill an elected one-year obligation. Despite not being compensated for this role, Breunig believes the BWU “definitely has been a net positive.” Workers now have a shorter waiting period for healthcare, guaranteed maintenance of health plans, an increased wage floor, and regular raises twice annually for the duration of their collective bargaining agreement.

There are sometimes unexpected outcomes when stores organize. Workers may want the protections a union can provide but may also find union policies around assigned shifts and approved time off to be more rigid. Owners may say they are pro-union but later find that the process of collective bargaining and meeting labor demands is sometimes too costly for small businesses. “Finding an attorney hits our bottom line” and jeopardizes the store’s financial solvency, admitted one management representative. Larger retailers may be more amenable to unionization, if only because they can shoulder the expenses, including legal fees, which can run into six figures even for a midsize store. (The UFCW-affiliated Half Price Books Workers United has unionized six shops so far: four in Minnesota, one in Indiana, and one in Illinois.)

When booksellers began organizing at Moe’s Books, “the advice I got from many people was to just give up,” said owner Doris Moskowitz. “But there is no giving up—I feel like I made this commitment to my parents [her dad was founder Moe Moskowitz], and to Berkeley.” She described the cost of preparing the contract as “huge—more than we ever expected,” but necessary to the collective process. “If Moe’s can do it, Amazon can do it—they have the profit margin.”

When workers unionized at Skylight Books, general manager Mary Williams decided not to hire a contract attorney at all. “We were negotiating the contract in 2021, when it was unclear how long it would take us to bounce back from our pandemic losses,” she said. “The costs of the contract negotiation phase were just in time and hard work—and it was hundreds of hours of my time and the negotiating committee’s time, altogether. But that hard work paid off in a contract that I think we all feel good about.”

Skylight’s contract went into effect on February 21, and Williams’s savings efforts enabled her to make other adjustments for employees. “We did have to change our time clock and scheduling software to accommodate the introduction of differential pay in the union contract, so that was an additional cost and labor-intensive transition, but it’s working well now,” she said.

Skylight also made changes to pay structure in response to wage compression, resulting in a “noticeable bump in pay for our longer-term booksellers and managers, rewarding them for their loyalty,” Williams said. “It also creates a scale that combines years on the job and responsibilities in a way that seems more fair than what we had before. It wasn’t my idea, but after going through many drafts with the negotiating committee, I’m pleased with the way it turned out.”

No one-size-fits-all model

Management and nonmanagement employees alike attribute unionization to various causes: changing generational values, a need for clear boundaries between managers and staff, and young workers motivated more by cash-in-hand than by incentives like profit sharing. Every store requires its own set of policies to satisfy its specific base.

“Bookstores are so idiosyncratic that my experience won’t necessarily be everyone’s,” Williams said. “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a typical indie bookstore, so I don’t think there will be a typical bookstore unionization experience. But I think the process of creating a union contract can provide an opportunity for store owners and staffs to clarify for themselves and each other what they’re looking for out of that relationship.”

At San Francisco’s Green Apple Books, which has been a union shop since 1994 (UFCW Local 5), Pete Mulvihill—who co-owns the store with Kevin Ryan—described the process of renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement every three years. “The negative is that once every three years, the difference between management and staff is accentuated, and then for the next three years we try to blur that line again,” he said. “On the other hand, the professionalization of our store moved forward in leaps and bounds when we unionized. Things unwritten or tacit became firm. People hired now know exactly what they’ll get paid, how much healthcare will cost.”

For Mulvihill, slim margins and a high cost of living in the Bay Area come with the bookselling territory. “The overarching problem with the book business is that prices are fixed,” he said. “If I need the new Stephen King, I buy it from Simon & Schuster because that’s who makes it. I’m not a grocery store, where if I don’t like the price of lemons I can find a different supplier. If PRH wants to give us another five percentage points, I can give all our workers a raise.”

At Elliott Bay, Karpp feels the BWU improved wages and benefits, yet admits to having moderate expectations for Seattle-area book labor. “When I started, I was making $9 an hour in New York City,” Karpp said. “I am better off making $19 an hour with benefits, with a union contract and full-time work. But in Seattle, there’s an enormous gap between where we’re at and the median wage.”