Bookstore workers at San Francisco’s City Lights Booksellers and Publishers announced on January 25 that they have agreed to unionize, with the City Lights Workers Union (CLWU) joining the Industrial Workers of the World Local 660. City Lights executive director Elaine Katzenberger received the union's request for management's voluntary recognition via email on Thursday. “I replied to that email on Friday afternoon, welcoming the union and asking for their IWW contact,” Katzenberger said, adding that the union “was embraced pretty much immediately.”
Bookseller and CLWU organizer Joan Toledo, who has been at the store for almost two years and is in charge of receiving, explained that efforts to unionize have been underway “for about 8–9 months, but there have been multiple discussions before I began my job at City Lights about unionizing.” Workers have now organized several landmark California bookstores, and one CLWU organizer, union delegate Noah Ross, helped organize Moe’s Books in Berkeley, Calif., in March 2021. (Moe’s contract was ratified that November.)
At City Lights, Toledo cited “strikingly low pay, despite working at one of the most famous independent bookstores in the world,” as well as “no grievance process of any kind.” She noted that “the overwhelming majority of us, if not all of us, are low income in one of the most expensive parts of California and have housing situations to reflect it.” Some bookselling hires come on board at San Francisco’s minimum wage, which is presently $18.07/hour, although others with additional responsibilities—Toledo was hired to be in charge of consignment—earn slightly more.
Toledo also expressed concern that there is “a total dearth of communication surrounding the direction of the publishing part of City Lights.” Union staffers see a need for greater transparency between the company's bookselling and publishing sides. “We have had a busy year for the store, and some of the newer titles from publishing are doing quite well,” Toledo said.
City Lights, which celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2023, is known as a bastion of radical literature, free speech activism, and social justice, although its staffers have not until now been unionized. In its profile on X (formerly Twitter), the City Lights Workers Union quotes from bookstore cofounder Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Populist Manifesto: To Poets, with Love”: “Don’t wait for the Revolution/ or it’ll happen without you.”
“We feel that our needs are perfectly in line with what Ferlinghetti would want for the workers,” Toledo said. “He himself was influenced by the labor movement, and among his varied activist work he did readings to benefit the United Farm Workers. We believe we will be able to negotiate with management in good faith because of that.”
Katzenberger, for her part, expressed an openness to collective bargaining on behalf of City Lights management. “We're sincerely looking forward to finding out how unionization can help us to make our workplace better,” she said. “It’s always an ongoing project to create and maintain a humane, productive and collegial workplace, and we’re glad for any help there might be to further that process and project.”
This article has been updated for clarity and with further information.