Employees at Bookshop Santa Cruz voted Wednesday to unionize.
The 18-10 vote means that, for the first time in the independently owned company’s history, its workers will be part of a union. They will be represented by the Communications Workers of America Local 9423.
They are part of a growing number of unionized booksellers including Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Powell’s Books in Portland, and Strand Book Store in New York.
Responding to an email asking for comment, Bookshop owner Casey Coonerty Protti wrote: “Bookshop Santa Cruz plans to enter into good faith bargaining to ensure that we meet the needs of our employees and of the store during this very challenging time.”
Celeste Orlosky, a member of the organizing committee, says the vote represents the culmination of a six-month effort by employees to organize a collective bargaining group. It all began when the store furloughed employees at the beginning of the pandemic, last March. Orlosky tells Good Times that a companywide email was sent informing staff when they could come back. If they choose not to, it would be viewed as voluntary termination, leaving the person ineligible for unemployment benefits. She says that while it was not the best option, it was “understandable.”
“However, what was missing from that correspondence were any measurable protections when we were back in the store,” she says.
That’s when Orlosky and others decided to write an email to Protti, outlining 10 key issues the employees wanted to see addressed moving forward, like putting up Plexiglas barriers and having someone be a greeter with the store’s Covid-19 regulations at the front entrance.
“That was our first collective action, and we just went from there,” Orlosky says. “Organizing is really just talking to your co-workers and finding out what’s going on with each other.”
The decision to push for unionization came last summer after organizers realized it was the next logical step in their journey. On Dec. 11, 2020, organizers rallied in front of the bookstore to publicly announce their move.
Orlosky acknowledges the stress of the pandemic has been taxing on Protti and staff alike, describing the choice to unionize as springing more out of giving the employees a collective voice rather than hostility.
She hopes the move will help streamline and update certain features of working at the store, like switching from a work schedule written on Google Docs to a more concrete medium. Since California has at-will employment—meaning employees can generally be fired without cause or notice—Orlosky also believes unionizing will set in place the proper procedures if someone needs to be terminated.
“Bookshop is not necessarily a business that tries to fire people,” she says. “But if there are workers who aren’t working cooperatively, there are procedures for that situation. So it benefits both us and the employer.”
Orlosky and her fellow workers are organizing a celebratory rally in front of the store on Saturday at noon. Once the rally is over, she says that’s when the real work will begin.
Contract negotiations often can be a long, drawn-out process. Bookshop workers hope to include more transparency in pay rates between the different departments, de-escalation tactics for dealing with hostile—often anti-mask—customers, and guaranteed annual or semi-annual raises.
“The intention, of course, is not to close Bookshop. We can include provisions for, as an example, during a pandemic,” she says. “Everything in the contract is up for negotiation, and we certainly do not want to harm Bookshop in any way, shape or form.”