M.J. Jenkins, a bookseller at Bookshop Santa Cruz, didn’t take the decision to start organizing a union lightly.
“I was nervous, because unionizing can be seen as just a bunch of agitators. But that’s not what we’re going for at all,” says Jenkins, who’s worked at the bookstore for a little more than a year and makes $15.75 an hour.
Jenkins and some of her colleagues have submitted a mission statement about their intent to unionize to Bookshop owner Casey Coonerty Protti. According to a post on IndyBay.org, there will be a protest outside Bookshop on Pacific Avenue Friday, Dec. 11, at 5pm. Jenkins says she and her fellow organizers are focused on advocating for themselves in hopes of getting health care and a securing a livable wage—which, for Santa Cruz, they calculated to be $17.90.
Entry-level Bookshop employees currently start at a $15.50 hourly wage. For the first time, the store also has temporary workers, who are making $14 an hour for the holiday season, but they are not fully trained booksellers, Protti says. She adds that the majority of workers make more than $17.75 an hour.
Protti, who says Bookshop has been rocked by hardship from the Covid-19 pandemic, hasn’t taken a salary herself since mid-March.
That is when health officials at both the state and local levels instituted stay-at-home orders, causing business to plummet, although book orders were available to customers for curbside pickup. In May, the store’s profits were down 50% compared to one year prior, Protti says.
Bookstores already operate on tight margins. In a good year, a bookstore is lucky to turn a 2% profit, she explains. Keeping the business afloat this year has put a strain on not just her finances but also those of her father Neal Coonerty, who first bought the business in 1973, she says.
Protti says that, if the shop’s employees do vote to form a union, the store’s managers will absolutely recognize the union and work with organizers. She promises to do their best to address all the union’s concerns and demands.
Jenkins says the organizers’ request for health care is central to their concerns, given the stress involved in working during a pandemic.
Protti says the store, which is open 9am-9pm daily for the holidays, eliminated health benefits several years ago because the store’s management team was watching premiums increase 30% per year, and the care itself was lousy. Her team crunched the numbers and determined that it would be more cost-effective to just let employees buy health care for themselves on health care exchanges.
Bookshop passed the savings onto its employees, Protti says, by giving everyone a $2 hourly wage increase that year. She says that the whole saga transpired before many of the current union organizers started working for the company, so she feels some of that context may be lost on them. Going forward, the store could probably give workers health care again, but the money would have to come from somewhere else, she says.
“There’s no additional money hidden anywhere for any express purpose, so it would have to come out of some other part of the company,” she says. “It’s all open for discussion. But if health care is going to be $250,000, that would have to come out of payroll somehow, if we don’t have any profits.”
Jenkins says she wishes Bookshop had been more accommodating to workers who didn’t feel comfortable working with the public during the pandemic and about moving them to other tasks, like letting them work from home.
Protti says she and the managers tried to accommodate everyone, including Jenkins, as quickly as possible. The store went above and beyond government-mandated public health protocols for retail businesses, she says. Nonetheless, Protti says she empathizes with the stress of working in the store during the pandemic, as she has been experiencing it firsthand, and her husband is medically vulnerable.
While the announcement about a possible union did not totally blindside Protti, she wishes organizers had waited until after the holidays. The news came in the morning of Thursday, Dec. 10, right before the first night of Hanukkah. Protti, whose family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas, says the holiday season can already be a nerve-racking time, and this year, businesses are under pressure to try and recover as many losses as possible from a tough year.
“I’ve tried my best to lead with integrity and compassion but also to ensure that Bookshop Santa Cruz can make it out of the pandemic, which is still not guaranteed,” she says.
Jenkins says she and her fellow organizers also want to see the store survive.
Jenkins grew up in Santa Cruz and spent five years working for libraries. She loves helping people find good stories. She remembers going to Bookshop when she was a child, and, when she has kids one day, she looks forward to sharing the store with them, she says. She adds that, if someone wants to show support, they can mention that they support store workers while buying a book at the store, or they can write that they support Bookshop workers in the comment box for online orders.
“Our main thing is just getting these needs met, and I don’t see them as being wild,” Jenkins says. “We all love working at the store. We’re doing this because we want to keep working at this store. For a lot of us, it’s a passion.”