Bookshop Santa Cruz
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Bookshop Santa Cruz Employees Consider Forming Union

Owner Casey Coonerty Protti says notice comes at a tough time for local store

Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, hasn't taken a salary this year, due to losses from the pandemic. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

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.”

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Friend of the People

    January 22, 2021 at 12:19 pm

    Good on them. Hopefully this starts a domino effect and more people unionize.

  2. Saddened

    December 17, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    If you wondered why Amazon stock has been such a winner look no further. Between customers looking for a just slightly better deal and employees looking to bleed the store of every last dollar of profit, independent local businesses are dying in droves. While I’ve been a loyal customer for many years, it sickens me to think that dollars I spend at Bookshop will now go straight into the pockets of CWA AFL-CIO executives to wine and dine legislators into helping them murder ever more small community businesses.

  3. Hardly Fast

    December 16, 2020 at 2:30 pm

    Take it from me, I was a ‘unionizer’ once 35 years ago and guess what? it didn’t take long for the fighting to begin. Frozen raises, loud debates, bad faith, bribery and intimidation and yes… it put the shop out of business. Those Millennials are going to lean a hard lesson: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!!!

  4. Anonymous

    December 15, 2020 at 9:23 pm

    Go ahead and just close the store in. Are these people living in a fantasy world? Independent bookstores are a dying breed, this is no time to do this to the best business in town.

  5. David

    December 14, 2020 at 9:40 am

    The Coonerty family owns half of Pacific Avenue and they can’t afford to pay their employees a living wage? What a joke.

  6. John dow

    December 13, 2020 at 11:54 am

    Just fire those idiots. A union against a locally owned one location bookstore? Bahahaha! What a bunch of fools. Its retail. If you want healthcare get a real job. Its amazing that the bookstore is even still in business in 2020.

  7. Sierra

    December 12, 2020 at 4:29 pm

    Could this article pander to one side anymore? The cover photo is even a picture of the owner, when this movement is about the workers. What a disappointing and slanted read.

  8. Bryan

    December 12, 2020 at 11:01 am

    I hope the union organizers are happy…. They will force another small business to close, due to their ignorance about the realities of operating a small business.

  9. Chelsea Wagner

    December 12, 2020 at 5:10 am

    It always amuses me when history repeats itself. Events create decisions based upon a set of given factors. Once the corrections are made the factors dissipate memories evaporate and the cycle repeats itself. So the store will have to take away the two dollar increase then show the employees how it is cheeper for them to buy insurance. Then those employees will leave new and new ones will have to go thew the same process.

  10. Amy

    December 11, 2020 at 9:45 pm

    Seriously… They get paid more than my daughter who works for AMR driving an ambulance to 911 calls and saving people’s lives. We all wish we made more. You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.

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