“It’s Just Too Hard to Organize Retail.”
“It’s just too hard to organize retail.” That was the constant refrain, the excuse, the well-intentioned discouragement. To a certain extent, all who told me so were correct: there are many reasons that building worker power and making eventual pushes for unionization in retail is tricky. The turnover. The age or inexperience of a lot of the workforce. The fact that retail work is often seen as a transitory stepping stone, or worse, “low-skill labor” staffed with people constantly looking for more gainful employment. And, in our particular case at Half Price Books, the fact that we’ve got the optics of being a Fun Place to Work. These were all real hurdles to overcome in our organizing. But in 2021, we got organized, we had tough conversations, we supported each other through mandatory captive audience meetings, we had elections, and we successfully unionized four Half Price Books locations in Minnesota.
It all began last year, on May Day. Or, at least, that’s the dramatic, romantic, narrative-satisfying version. In reality, there were a couple informational calls, lots of background research, and a personal predisposition to the plight of the working class, but meeting up with a Union rep at George Floyd Square was what really helped me take things from theoretical to actionable. Unionizing at HPB was like most other projects I’ve ever started: once I actually started speaking with another human about it, the effort started to take shape and feel real.
Like any organizing effort, unionizing at Half Price Books had to start small. I only mentioned unionizing to the folks at HPB that I knew would be sympathetic to the cause, and more importantly wouldn’t immediately turn around and tell management. Two long-time coworkers and I formed an organizing committee at our Roseville, MN store, and we started the work of mapping out the people at our workplace, talking about our approach, and planting the seeds with our fellow workers. “Mapping it out” looked a lot like making a big spreadsheet of our coworkers, figuring out how likely they were to be receptive to the idea, and who among us would be best to approach them to have those initial conversations. Those tactical dialogues almost always began in benign ways, like “how are you liking the job?” or “if there were anything about the store that you’d change, what would it be?” but almost always led to some variety of “a group of us are talking about organizing to make our jobs better, is that something you’d be interested in?”
Through these conversations and subsequent group meetings, our demands began to crystalize. Many things needed to change at HPB, but among the most important were: our wages were far too low (especially amongst experienced employees), the company’s grievance procedure was essentially non-existent, we needed better layoff and recall procedures, and training consistency throughout the company needed to be dramatically improved. Plus, over the summer, we’d submitted two petitions to the company about COVID and insufficient staffing, and the evasive lack of a response from the company was another motivating factor in a lot of our coworkers deciding that we needed to form a union. As our numbers at Roseville steadily increased, we began to formulate plans to reach out to all five of the other Minnesota Half Price Books locations, assuming there were shared sentiments amongst our coworkers at other stores. Sure enough, there were. Over the summer and fall, we slowly but surely built a powerful unit of booksellers at our store and three other local stores that knew we’d have each other’s backs when the time came to publicly unionize. That feeling of solidarity is absolutely unbeatable.
Building that solidarity proved crucial, when the time came for us to go public and demand the company recognize our union, the company wasn’t exactly thrilled. Within a couple days, Half Price Books management had posted a notice to employees at the unionizing stores that included threatening phrases like “this is a very serious decision, one that could affect your working future, and the future of those that depend on you” and “we intend to oppose the Union’s attempt to unionize the store with every legal means available to us.” Needless to say, the tone was set. And even when the company eventually retracted that letter, claiming that their lawyer told them they had to post it, we were still subjected to union-busting consultants, captive audience meetings, and general anti-union rhetoric from all levels of management and HR.
Facing an anti-union campaign that included the CEO of Half Price Books flying in and confronting groups of workers was definitely stressful, but since we had been preparing each other for exactly such a campaign, we took it in stride (and in some cases, the company’s response even made us more sure that unionizing was the right decision). It was scary; it was exhausting. But once the election came around, all four local stores that had filed for union elections won handily. Because we were ready for the pushback. Because we had organized on principles that we all felt passionate about. And because we stayed strong and united.
And that brings us to now: contract bargaining. HPB workers and UFCW representatives got together and talked, filled out surveys, created proposals, and the bargaining committee (of which I am a part) is currently proposing those items to the employer. We’re making some progress, and we’re excited to negotiate for the things that we know will make our jobs better, safer, more rewarding, and turn them into workplaces where people want to stay. We have lost a couple coworkers since we won our elections — because of the aforementioned turnover issues that plague almost all retail work environments — but every new coworker is a chance for a new connection, a new relationship, and a new comrade in this struggle.
This struggle for better wages and working conditions is industry-wide. From being seen as passion work — you work in a bookstore because you love it, and not for the money — to simply being told that the world of bookselling isn’t a place where you should expect a living wage because the margins are so low, there are thousands of book workers in both retail and publishing that need to start standing up for what we’re worth. We’ve learned this first-hand from the unionized bookstore workers that have come before us, the workers at The Strand, Powell’s, Elliot Bay, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Skylight, Indigo, and many others. In fact, so many of those bookstores have organized within the last couple years! The wave of unionizing in 2021 and 2022 — from Starbucks to REI to Amazon to bookstores across the country — has been inspiring, and the momentum from that wave has even helped us build a Coalition of Organized Bookstores, where rank-and-file representatives from each union shop come together to support each other and talk strategically about how to uplift the industry as a whole. Workers everywhere, not just in the book world, are banding together and realizing that we can make change collectively, and we feel honored and energized to be a part of that.
We’ve already witnessed the positive change that can come from organizing, and we’re barely getting started. We’re dreaming of a future where every book worker has the opportunity to unionize, because our labor creates the value from which our companies profit, and we deserve to have a voice in the way our workplaces operate and the ways in which we’re compensated. Books are an absolutely vital part of our society, and the workers that make book distribution possible — in publishing, in bookstores, in Amazon warehouses — are just as essential. All book workers should be treated and compensated accordingly, and by unionizing at Half Price Books, we’re doing our small part to make that future a reality.
David Gutsche is a born-and-raised South Minneapolis resident, with a lifelong love of books, a half-life-long love of bikes, a quarter-life-long love of bread-baking, and a desire to see workers everywhere organizing for power and standing up for what they’re worth.
Follow the Minnesota Half Price Book workers' efforts on Twitter @HPBUnionMN and nationally @HPBWorkersUnite