Roughly thirty people gathered in the sunshine in front of the Tom Scribner statue in downtown Santa Cruz on Saturday, Feb. 6. Masked and many dressed in red, they congregated and cheered in celebration of the recent vote to unionize Bookshop Santa Cruz workers.
“Bookshop Santa Cruz has long touted itself as a progressive business,” committee organizer and five-year Bookshop employee Molly Schrank told the crowd.
Organizers like Schrank believe this is part of a growing trend toward more workers-rights policies and socialist-based groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America, whose Santa Cruz chapter has some 300 members (including this writer).
“Now is a time to stand up to those claims by demonstrating what progress truly looks like,” Schrank said at the rally. “Now is the time for Bookshop to lead the way, forging a path for all Santa Cruz workers to rise up and stand together fighting for a Santa Cruz that is vibrant, equitable and sustainable.”
The vote passed 18-10 on Feb. 3 after the effort to unionize was first publicly announced Dec. 11. The booksellers—of which there are about 40 total—will be represented by the Communications Workers of America Local 9423. They are part of a growing number of unionized bookstore employees including at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Powell’s Books in Portland, and Strand Book Store in New York.
Celeste Orlosky, another member of the organizing committee, says the vote represents the culmination of a nine-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. The pandemic also pushed workers to unionize for health care benefits.
“It organically formed out of realizing if we wanted safety protection we would have to push for it every step of the way,” Schrank tells GT.
Orlosky 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.”
Contract negotiations often can be a long, drawn-out process. 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.
When asked if working conditions at the local shop were hostile, Orlosky denied this, saying the choice to unionize sprung more out of giving the employees a collective voice. Schrank described working conditions as “usually pretty good.”
Another organizer and rally speaker, M.J. Jennings, agrees more transparency is needed and sees the unionization effort based on communication issues.
“Bookshop has seen exponential growth, which is great,” says Jennings. “But when you get that growth and that many added people in the mix there’s just not the level of communication infrastructure between coworkers and management that you need.”
Bookshop owner Casey Coonerty Protti says the company plans to enter “good faith bargaining” to meet the needs of employees and the store alike. However, the vote to unionize—and the demands surrounding the effort—caught her by surprise.
“Up until they served the union papers, I didn’t have a single employee ever come to me and ask for employer-based health care or ask why we didn’t provide it,” she explains.
In fact, the store provided health care through 2010 until premiums grew so high they decided to instead take the money and redistribute it to employees. Protti says at the time they also added an additional $50,000, which allowed the store to give a $2 an hour raise to its staff.
As for the email sent to employees about returning during the early stages of the pandemic last year, Protti says many of the safety demands made by the organizers were already in motion. She says things like the Plexiglas barriers were already ordered and the store had been working “almost 24 hours a day nonstop” to prepare for opening, including organizing future safety meetings. Still, she wanted to know the exact number of employees committed to returning prior to divulging the changes that would take place. It’s a decision she now regrets.
“It was my mistake doing it the opposite way,” she says. “But [concerning] the demands they sent me, half of them were already done.”
Protti prides herself in having an “open door” policy with employees, welcoming them to bring any concerns or grievances to her and management. The store has a standing policy of staff liaisons as an avenue for anonymous feedback, which she prioritizes. They have also held staff-led diversity committees and conducted an anonymous survey surrounding concerns about race, equity and inclusion any Bookshop employees may have had.
She says the business not only addresses all matters raised but actively tries to implement change concerning any issues communicated through these avenues. Moving forward, what most concerns Protti will be the lack of individual needs being met.
“Now all of that will happen through a process where they are relying on union representatives and we’re relying on lawyers,” she says. “It seems like a very formalized, expensive approach to something we’ve always done side-by-side with each other.”
Negotiating committees do consist of union reps and individual employees.
Still, it’s a major concern shared by one long-term employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from co-workers. They say in their five-year tenure they’ve seen the open-door policy in place and feel the company actively works to respond to employees needs.They fear a union will only fracture these bonds instead of strengthening them.
“It’s created a divide that wasn’t there before,” they say, expressing much of the push seems to be coming from younger staff members, with participation phasing out among older employees. They believe unionizing was less about the context of the situation and more about the ideology of collective bargaining in general.
“The idea of unions really applies to people whose jobs are putting them at risk, and for them the need for unions is a real thing,” they say. “But is that applicable to a small, family business? And could those concerns have been solved with better communication or even mediation?”
Protti says, “There’s not a lot of hidden money sitting around. But we’re open to hearing what the union is interested in and how they might prioritize how we spend money in terms of wages and benefits.”
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the business of bookselling was already under strain.
According to the American Booksellers Association, most independent bookstores operate within a 2% margin of profitability. Protti says much of that is due to publishers and vendors setting the price of books, not the individual stores like other business models. So as overhead costs increase, while profits don’t.
Despite that slim margin, whenever it was known Bookshop would make a profit, Protti says that money went back into the store—primarily for salaries. For her part, she decided not to take a salary all of last year in an effort to cut costs for the business which saw anywhere from 15-50% revenue loss each month of 2020.
“Ownership didn’t take any money out of the store,” Protti says. “It all went back straight into the store to allow it to survive and ensure the employees could make a living wage as best as we could provide.”
Organizer Orlosky acknowledges the stress of the pandemic has been taxing on Protti and staff alike and hopes this next chapter will be seen as an effort to grow the business.
“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.”