Barnes & Noble Workers Plan Union Drive at Largest U.S. Bookstore Chain
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Author: Michael Sainato
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The Guardian

Workers at America’s largest chain of bookstores are gearing up for a nationwide union drive after six Barnes & Noble outlets voted to organize over the past year.

“Many more” stores will unionize, according to booksellers demanding better pay and conditions.

At locations that already have, employees accuse the chain’s management of dragging their heels during contract negotiations. James Daunt, the CEO, is said to have embarked upon a months-long campaign to dissuade employees from voting in favor.

“He would come in and essentially try to talk us out of unionizing,” said Jessica Sepple, a bookseller for more than two years at Barnes & Noble’s flagship New York City store in Union Square. “The big argument against us unionizing was it would make his life harder, which he would repeat several times. It wasn’t very successful.”

The store voted 76-2 in favor of unionizing last summer, becoming one of three in New York City to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Another followed in Bloomington, Illinois, while two others – in San Jose, California, and Hadley, Massachusetts – joined other unions.

In a statement, Daunt disputed claims of delays at the negotiating table. He claimed he was in agreement with workers on “the fundamentals” of their demands – but warned of “potential upsides and downsides” to a union.

Barnes & Noble has some 600 stores across the US, and Daunt – who became CEO in 2019 – has worked to turn around the business, which had spent years in decline. It is owned by the investment giant Elliott Management, which also owns Britain’s Waterstones, which is also run by Daunt.

“Our purpose for unionizing is to get some recognition for the dignity of workers,” said Sepple. “And having sat at the table and currently in negotiations with Barnes & Noble, it is disappointing that Barnes & Noble has not treated this as if that dignity is deserved.”

Workers at the Union Square site have experienced several issues for years, she claimed, including lagging wages, safety concerns with ladders and book storage, aggressive customers, and being given more duties than a job initially entailed.

“If you’re good at your job, you’re just going to get more work,” added Sepple. “It takes a lot of knowledge, research and a love of reading and books to make it happen, and oftentimes I’ve found the company tends to coast on that.”

At another New York store, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, workers won a union election in July 2023.

Sydul Akhanji, a bookseller of two years at the store, wants to work at Barnes & Noble for the long term, but says that low pay serves as a deterrent. If the company wants to build itself around knowledgeable booksellers, its workers need to be able to afford rent and food, he said.

Daunt tried to deter workers in Park Slope from unionizing, according to Akhanji, who claimed the chain’s CEO “just went on and on about how it’d be hard and make all his plans complicated, if we unionized, and how he has a vision for us, so please, just don’t unionize right now”.

Workers say contract negotiations have been slowed by Barnes & Noble insisting that demands and asks be referred to company lawyers, who have not been at the table. They have also been frustrated by management negotiating separately with individual New York stores.

On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, workers at Barnes & Noble backed unionizing earlier this month. “We live in the most expensive city in the country,” Esther Rosenfield, a barista at the store, said. “And our starting wage until very recently was minimum wage, and it’s just not sustainable.”

Shortly after her store filed for a union election, Rosenfield said, employees there and at other locations received a $2-an-hour market rate adjustment: “We were told basically that this had nothing to do with the union. But I think people can draw their own conclusions based on just the proximity to when it happened.”

It comes amid tentative signs of a nationwide movement. Workers in Bloomington, Illinois, heard about the union votes in New York last summer, and held their own – and unanimously voted to unionize – in November.

“James Daunt did a conference call to the store himself saying a vote for the union is a vote against him,” claimed a senior bookseller, Zane Crockett. “The issues we’re facing are companywide. We’re all facing the same issues. If one small store in the midwest can unionize, then anyone can..”

Barnes & Noble workers in Bloomington had complained about issues including “skeleton crews”, only to encounter “pretty much crickets”, according to Crockett. When they declared their intent to unionize, he said, executives started visiting the store and asking what they could do improve conditions. “The moment we voted,” he said, “that completely stopped.”

Contacted for comment, Daunt claimed he had only pointed out potential downsides of unionizing to workers in town halls, and disputed criticisms from workers about delays in contract negotiations – characterizing such criticism as evidence of downsides to unions.

“My argument to the booksellers has been very simple: we have no disagreement with the fundamentals of what is being asked for, and indeed have pivoted the company precisely to achieve them,” he wrote. “Only a successful business, after all, can deliver the investments necessary to improve pay and the physical condition of our stores.

“In this endeavor, I see both potential upsides and downsides to the addition of a union. The most obvious potential upside is to have a clearer articulation of bookseller aspirations. Equally, there are potential downsides, notably if it causes unnecessary confrontation between ‘management’ and ‘workers’ and the fact that low-paid booksellers will have to pay significant dues to the union, all other things being equal reducing their pay.”

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