You might think of used bookstores as outdated, musty, even archaic. Definitely a place where things are slow to change. That’s what made our organizing drive at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California so striking: the process of unionizing took place at a stunning speed. We went public as members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in March 2020 and we had a first contract only 9 months later in November. Although we were able to move at a much quicker clip than most workplaces, there’s no reason that Moe’s has to be exceptional. We believe that other book workers and retail employees can reproduce our success too.
Organizing at Moe’s Books was catalyzed by the pandemic, although there were many reasons why we ultimately took the plunge and unionized. I remember Christmas 2020: it was horrible. Although the store was as crowded and busy as a normal holiday rush, we had only a quarter of our normal staff, and cases were spiking dramatically. This was pre-vaccine and it felt terrifying. At Moe’s, our four floors and vast square footage had given us a high capacity cap, but 90% of our customers were in the basement and on the first floor, packed like sardines and barely able to get past each other, never mind socially distance properly. By the 20th of December, the city of Berkeley announced that retail should lower their operating capacity from 50% to 25%. Our boss lowered the occupancy limit slightly, and for one day, but then came back with some news: her 22-year old son had done some math, and they had been operating at a lower than necessary capacity anyway based on square footage, and so, therefore, it stood to reason that we should double the number of people we let in the door.
Maybe our grievances seem like a small thing, but if you were working retail in that first year of the pandemic, you probably understand what it felt like. People were sneezing on the books they were handing us. Customers were belligerent and shocked when we broke the first rule of customer service and told them that, sorry, they couldn’t take their mask off to blow their nose. The state and local Covid regulations never felt like they were intended to keep us safe as much as they were designed to make those working from home comfortable and confident shopping. The government never gave a damn about the health and safety of the people they termed “essential workers,” never mind small business bookstore workers — as one rude customer summarized when he was asked to pull his mask over his nose: “You guys need to learn that you’re not essential!”
The night of the Christmas capacity increase, my co-workers and I gathered at my house and talked over what bullshit it all was. We drank a lot of beer on my porch and we schemed. The next day we went in to work and told our boss we weren’t going to open the store unless the capacity went back down.
Even before we had a union, the nucleus of our organization–a group of us refusing to work unless conditions were met–had racked us up with a win.
A unique and beautiful thing about Moe’s is the fact that most of the staff have been working at the store for decades. But this meant that most of the staff were also over 60, and in the early days of the pandemic they had been staying home because they were at high risk for complications from Covid. Our boss was not happy about this. I saw people who had given literal decades of their lives in service to the store—scraping by on what in the Bay Area is a laughable salary—treated with absolutely shameful disrespect. The owner of Moe’s made a huge error when she made it clear how little she respected her employees during the pandemic, both the frontline staff and those who were furloughed waiting for the vaccine. She had the most dedicated staff I think anyone has ever had. These people cared, and still do care, about Moe’s with a fervor. They loved that store more deeply than I have ever seen workers care about their workplace. Before the pandemic, the store functioned day-to-day as a worker co-op — not in the things that actually count such as hours and wages and illegal overtime, but in the way that things were run. In fact, I don’t think our boss had any idea how to do most of the things that made the store function, be it normal book buying, till balancing, even shelving, let alone the skilled appraisals that went into keeping such a large store full of high-quality books. Unaware of the skilled labor that went into the store, I think our boss saw the pandemic as an opportunity to replace the older workers who were making maybe $22 an hour with college students on minimum wage.
Moe’s was founded by the old communist Moe Moskowitz (hence the longtime, dedicated staff who had been hired at reasonable pay with health insurance). Its current owner — his daughter — literally wrote a book called “Radical Bookselling” and sold Soviet posters in the basement while she chipped away at our health insurance and froze wages. She had profited off of the radical history of the store for years, and though this had always been vaguely unsavory to the workers, it turned out to really work in our favor.
After our first successful action, those of us who had been on my front porch decided to gently raise the subject of further organizing — maybe even a union — to the rest of staff. It helped that we had all been sent a letter after the Christmas debacle informing us that if we ever tried to pull a stunt like that again, we’d all be fired immediately. We expected tentative interest in talking to our boss collectively, maybe some backlash. One of my coworkers called me late at night to game out about the best possible strategies to convince reluctant workers to join a union. This 4th dimensional chess is hilarious in retrospect. Out of the twenty workers employed at Moe’s at the time, exactly twenty people agreed pretty quickly that we should form a union.
The pandemic exposed issues of respect that had laid latent for years. In the months between December 2020 and March 2021, there were several incidents where staff were treated in a way that everyone found disrespectful and upsetting. I had been taken off the Sunday shift after a man had posted a negative Google review when I told him to put his mask over his nose. One of my coworkers, who my boss had never liked for some unclear and clearly personal reason, had been “laid off” instead of furloughed like the rest of us with no explanation given. A different coworker was yelled at and “fired” by my boss’s husband in an inexplicable fit of paranoid rage, after asking for a key that he needed to do his job. Our boss called it an “argument” and simply refused to acknowledge that he’d been told he was fired.
When we decided that one-off actions were not enough and a union was the only way forward, everything accelerated. We came together and drafted a letter asking for our concerns be respected; management’s poor response convinced us that we had to move faster. We announced that every single worker at Moe’s had signed a union card and were voluntarily recognized in a week.
There are unique advantages and also issues that come with organizing a small business. Small shops are not typically considered strategic by most labor organizers and larger unions. When we started getting in touch with unions to see what our options were, almost nobody was interested in taking us on. It is cost intensive to organize a small shop, as bargaining that first contract will absorb as much union staffer energy and attention as a much larger workplace. Without interest from larger unions, we considered forming an independent organization, but we eventually decided to join the IWW, a fitting connection considering Moe’s history. Frankly, this reluctance to take on small shops feels to me like a huge oversight in labor strategizing, as I think the current wave of Starbucks union announcements is showing — shop by shop can be a very effective method of politicizing people around issues of work and can provide them with a means of participating in a revivified labor movement. So, too, was the wave of bookstore unions that has swept the country over the past few years. We were talking to comrades at Elliot Bay and Bookshop Santa Cruz during the whole process. It was fantastic to feel part of the movement.
It’s hard for customers to see anything bad in the small businesses that are supposed to be the ethical alternative to big box stores or the internet conglomerates. It’s also easy for bosses to pull the “struggling small business” card and claim that a union might shut them down. During the nine months of organizing, we mostly received support from the community, but there were definitely people ready to tell us we should be ashamed for putting Moe’s in danger. But there are advantages to organizing at a small business, too, the biggest of which is that community support can be way more effective when the boss is actually involved in the community and doesn’t want to look bad. So, too, is the community more likely to rally around the workers of a beloved local landmark. I’m sure some small business owners care less about what the community thinks of them than the owner of Moe’s did — but I bet all of them care more than Jeff Bezos.
We used social media to great effect during our campaign, as well as small, targeted actions to put public pressure on our boss. With every piece of negative press, our boss flipped out, and was more likely to accede to our demands when she thought it would make the bad press stop. This is where community organizing can be really effective, especially when combined with a union like the IWW, which is down for pretty much anything but doesn’t have a ton of resources for community outreach or social media. We had a lot of helpful support from the local Communist Caucus of the DSA in putting on a rally and an informational picket, as well as leafleting and postering the town.
The flip side of the effectiveness of pressuring a small business owner in such a targeted way is that things get really personal. Which, when you’re working alongside someone every day, can become hard to deal with. From the outside, it probably looked like the owner of Moe’s Books supported the union—instant voluntary recognition, a contract in nine months. But the truth is that management reacted to the union in small, petty, personal ways that made the workplace miserable. Several of my coworkers and I were targeted for harassment in a way that was just ridiculous. For the most part, it never stepped over the line into something illegal, but it was nevertheless difficult to live with. We’re talking snide comments and subtle punishments, very petty things. Management went out of their way to do whatever they knew would make us all as uncomfortable as possible, and that translated into near constant and internecine fights over Covid protocol. Every week, it felt like they made a new attempt to remove our check-in table, increase store capacity, and not require customers to wear masks. They seemed to be driven not by an overriding compulsion to maximize profit but to assert control of the workplace, taking up policies simply because they knew the staff didn’t want it. There was a hiring freeze, which meant that we were constantly short staffed and stressed out. And the harassment went further, too. My boss sent me multiple emails calling me a liar for talking to journalists. One of my coworkers was the object of behavior I can only call bullying and had a set of keys thrown at him. Our boss cornered a different coworker and started literally crying and telling her that the union would be the end of the store. Moe’s had always been a very chill and enjoyable workplace. Suddenly, it became deeply unpleasant.
This isn’t to say that Moe’s management never stepped over the line into union busting territory. In fact, a member of management fired a new employee for no reason, a day after explicitly telling him not to talk to union members. Yikes. (We won that unfair labor practice charge—you shouldn’t tell new employees you don’t like the union.) But wherever you are, unionizing is extremely stressful; in a small workplace where everyone is on a first name basis and you have to see your boss an hour after a contract negotiation session, the workplace atmosphere can be the hardest thing to handle.
That’s probably why, out of the twenty people who originally signed union cards, there are only seven or eight still working at Moe’s. One person retired, a few got offered better opportunities, and many others left simply because they needed to find something that paid better. But several people, myself among them, left because it was no longer worth it to put up with the treatment we were receiving. We stuck it out to get our contract, though. My last day of work was the day we signed the damn thing.
I’m very proud of that contract. We put months of endless work into writing and negotiating it, and the negotiation sessions were so stressful they left me shaking, but the end result was a huge victory. I was so lucky to work alongside such brilliant coworkers during that process, and to have IWW representatives who really put worker demands first. Being such a small shop, and organizing with the IWW, we really had a lot of room to pivot, to demand what we wanted, and to be flexible and fast in our negotiations. The first thing we did, very unconventionally, was negotiate a temporary Covid protocol agreement to go into effect immediately. I kid you not, having a person at the door to enforce mask wearing was one of the hardest things to secure an agreement on in the entire contract. Additionally, we got management to agree to a contract without a No Strike clause. If you’re familiar with labor contracts at all, you know how typical a No Strike/No Lockout clause is—most companies will not consider signing a contract without it. But it’s also a clause that gives up the most fundamental right that workers have, the right to withhold labor. The Moe’s management lawyer was essentially stunned when he was informed that the IWW does not, as a matter of principle, sign contracts with No Strike clauses, but after he regained the power of speech and we spent about six hours explaining how serious we were, he folded.
That wasn’t the only contract victory. We got significant, immediate raises for every member of staff, and a yearly cost-of-living increase. The starting wage for a clerk went from the Berkeley minimum wage, $16.32, to $20 an hour. And one member of the staff, who had been really unfairly stuck at $18 an hour despite having been there for multiple decades, got a $5 raise. Also, we won management-provided de-escalation training for all staff members, as an effort to reduce/stop calling the cops on houseless people having mental health crises. Pretty sure they haven’t delivered on that promise yet, but hopefully they will soon. We even put language in the contract to protect employees’ right to be called by the pronouns of their choosing — possibly one of the first labor contracts to specifically spell that out as a workplace right. We didn’t get a victory on everything: a commitment to antiracist hiring practices was not forthcoming, for example. We didn’t get any changes in health insurance, although we did win free dental. But I think that the groundwork laid in this first contract is solid enough that even more can be gained in the next contract negotiation.
The current workers continue to receive the same hassle from management, and management is trying to slip around the contract language in any way they possibly can. But as more of the longtime workers who have been at Moe’s for decades retire, I still think that unionizing might ultimately save Moe’s. When wages are slim, benefits basically nonexistent, and treatment unpleasant, worker turnover is going to be high. The union means that Moe’s might just be a viable place to work long term again, someday — and I hope that will happen, because a bookstore can’t be as special and excellent as Moe’s without devoted booksellers putting love and care into it. If there are any takeaways from the Moe’s union story, it’s that small shops are in a unique position to organize and bargain right now, and this is something we as workers need to take advantage of. A small union can pivot, can move fast, make decisions and mobilize quickly. The Moe’s union could not have happened without exceptionally strong worker camaraderie — loyalty, love, and caring cultivated by workers and comrades who were willing to do almost anything for each other. That kind of friendship and care takes time and energy to establish, but it’s something I’ve often found easily in service industry jobs. Labor organizing is shifting. We are at a historic crossroads, as more and more unions blossom across the country. What could we accomplish if we all start organizing in the networks we are already embedded in?
Kalie McGuirl is a book and library worker, a visual artist, and a proud member of SEIU and the IWW based in Oakland, CA.
The Moe's Union is on Instagram @moesunion and on Twitter @moesbooksunion. And here's the Facebook link: Moe's Books Union - Home | Facebook