Workers at the Barnes & Noble’s flagship store in New York City's Union Square are hoping to join the growing numbers of booksellers across the country who have opted for collective bargaining: they filed with the National Labor Relations Board on Friday, requesting a union election with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). RWDSU already is the union representing several indie bookstores in New York: McNally Jackson, Greenlight, and Book Culture. Workers at the Barnes & Noble Education Store at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. recently filed for a union election with RWDSU; it has been scheduled for May 12. (B&N Education is a separate company from B&N.)
“We like to keep the numbers close to our chests, but there’s an overwhelming majority of the more than 100 workers at B&N on Union Square who have filled out authorization cards,” RWDSU director of communications Chelsea Connor told PW. “We always demand recognition first, and if we don’t get it, then we go to an election.” Connor says that pending the two parties coming to an agreement over the terms of the election, it could be held as early as next month, with booksellers, baristas, cashiers, and other non-supervisory personnel eligible to vote.
Connor noted that filing with the NLRB for a union election was done after B&N representatives did not voluntarily recognize the union, thus preventing negotiations from starting immediately to address the grievances cited by the workers, including safety issues, harassment in the workplace, substandard pay, erratic scheduling, a lack of structure regarding job responsibilities, favoritism by management, and a lack of transparency regarding promotions.
B&N's corporate headquarters is housed on the upper floors above the bookstore in the same building.
During a gathering of booksellers and others inside the store on Friday afternoon that organizers called a “walk on the boss,” Aaron Lascano, one of the booksellers leading the campaign for unionization at the Union Square store, announced the filing and explained why unionization was necessary. “Management and corporate are quick to offer gratitude for our work,” he said, “But at every available opportunity, they have demonstrated to us that we are disposable. How can we see this? Because this year, despite our store crushing our financial goal by several million dollars, there is no discussion of a bonus or a raise for us. We saw this last year too, when we also crushed that year’s plan, and then were offered raises of 20-40 cents. We see this over the company’s long history, which even when it did hand out yearly raises, only provided raises of 25 cents per year. Coming out of Covid, this company promised better pay, better support for full-time workers, and a clear promotion path. None of this has materialized.”
“Safety is a major concern for us; we’re working at the flagship store in the middle of Union Square, in New York City and we don’t have the proper training we need to handle the conflicts that arise at our store,” bookseller Desiree Nelson stated in a release, “As the city rebounds from the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in homeless and combative customers in our stores and we want to keep ourselves and other customers safe. We need conflict resolution training and safety protocols and equipment to handle our day-to-day jobs.” Another bookseller, Kaitlyn Keel, pointed out that the cost of living in New York City continues to rise, “but our wages are not.” She added, “workers’ safety is consistently brushed aside in exchange for high profits while we suffer the consequences.”
Two weeks ago, the workers at a B&N outlet in Hadley,. Mass. filed with the NLRB for a union election with the United Food and Commercial Workers. Organizers of that campaign cited low pay, inadequate hours, and a lack of accessibility inside the store. The Hadley union drive, if successful, would affect 15 booksellers and baristas at that store. The election is scheduled for May 25.
"We would like to be the best booksellers and baristas we can be," Cristi Jacques, who has worked as a bookseller at the Hadley B&N since November, said. "A big part of that is the hours we need and a living wage so that we don't have to work multiple jobs."
B&N did not respond to requests for comment made by phone and via email.
This story has been updated.