West Hollywood’s Book Soup unionizes

The employees of Book Soup, West Hollywood’s self-proclaimed “bookseller of the great and notorious,” begin a new chapter as union members.

Last month, Vroman’s, which owns the bookstore, voluntarily recognized its workers’ union in a major victory for the dozen or so booksellers who will be represented.

At the forefront of workers’ demands are wage increases and additional staff; Their concerns include disabled access, a fairer distribution of work, more transparency from leadership and “democratic decision-making in the workplace,” according to a social media post. The union is currently in negotiations.

“There were issues that we had that weren’t addressed … and the union was our way of setting certain boundaries, which is healthy in any relationship,” said Audrey Kaufman, Book Soup’s senior supervisor and a member of the organizing committee. “We had seen other independent bookstores in the area and across the country unionizing around the same time, and that was inspiring — that we could set those boundaries and have that legal protection from retaliation.”

Shelves line the walls of Book Soup.

A look inside Book Soup on the Sunset Strip.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Indeed, unions have boomed in many industries since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and booksellers – a workforce where unions were once rare – are joining the ranks. While bookstores like Portland’s legendary Powell’s and The Strand in New York City have long been unionized, job losses, furloughs, bookstore closures and other hardships brought on by the pandemic have inspired a new generation of booksellers to organize.

Victor Serrano, organizing coordinator for the Communications Workers of America District 9, to which the Book Soup union is affiliated, said unionization at smaller businesses like independent bookstores is a relatively new phenomenon.

“Traditionally, unions have never really organized anything small, it’s always been big, so the fact that a lot of these smaller companies are unionizing is saying something,” he said. He added that the nationwide union wave — affecting everything from an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island to hundreds of Starbucks stores and beyond — is largely being driven by Millennials and Gen Z. “They are a younger generation and they want things to be done differently.”

The pandemic was also an important factor. Operating bookstores during the COVID era raised questions about how to adequately protect the “health and safety of their employees,” Serrano added, “which prompted many employees to do more and be more active.”

In California, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Moe’s Books in Berkeley and Skylight Books in Los Feliz are among the stores that have also recently unionized. But workers in other sectors of the publishing industry are also demanding better protection and better benefits from their managers.

Last Wednesday, unionized workers at HarperCollins went on a day-long strike to pressure their publisher to accept a new deal that includes higher wages and better family vacation benefits. The union’s contract expired at the end of last year and the parties have not reached a new agreement.

Before the pandemic, Book Soup had a roster of about 25 on-call, part-time and full-time employees to run the store, with a minimum of six people working each day.

When the 2020 pandemic hit and non-essential stores were forced to close, many Book Soup employees were laid off or furloughed, and most were not reinstated or replaced when the store reopened at full capacity. Those six workers a day were reduced to three or four, increasing the workload per shift.

Julia Cowlishaw, CEO of Vroman’s and Book Soup, said staffing had been changed to comply with safety regulations and occupancy limits, but added staffing had increased as restrictions eased.

Current and former employees, most of whom have spoken on condition of anonymity, said leadership was initially reluctant to hire more staff. When they first started looking for new employees, few applied, and some employees believe it was because of the pay. The starting hourly wage for Book Soup booksellers is $16.50, with a 25-cent increase for supervisors, but that’s about to change thanks to a West Hollywood minimum wage hike that went into effect this month. The new provision will gradually increase pay for hourly workers through July 2023, by which time they should be making $18.77 an hour.

“We have worked consistently to recruit new staff since reopening and Book Soup’s budgeted pay hours are consistent with 2019,” Cowlishaw said, adding they are short of staff due to the pandemic. “Staffing challenges are not unique to our Book Soup location and we have turned to outside recruitment on a number of occasions to help with hiring. We have also adapted our processes to speed up both hiring and onboarding.”

Regarding workers’ entitlements to pay, Cowlishaw said there was a “general labor shortage and it was a challenge to find people with the aptitude, availability and flexibility needed to staff an independent bookstore” – a challenge that remains even then, she added, introduced a $2 increase in the Christmas bonus.

A man exits Book Soup.

Book Soup employees have joined a growing wave of small businesses forming unions, including publishers and booksellers.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“The retail book trade, and the independent book trade in particular, has always operated on very low margins,” Cowlishaw said. “The last two years, like so many, have been exceptionally challenging, both financially and operationally.”

Murmurs about unionizing began to pile up at the West Hollywood store last summer, but the stress and chaos of the holiday season prevented any action.

Current and former employees described a stressful work environment where low wages met high inflation, while high turnover and a lack of clarity from management fostered an atmosphere of instability.

Natalie Mattox, a former Book Soup manager and bookseller, said poor communication is a big complaint. “They ordered changes and made assumptions about how things were going in the business, but they were rarely there to see for themselves what was actually happening.”

“Communicating in times of change and uncertainty is always a challenge,” said Cowlishaw. “We’re doing our best to listen, keep everyone informed, and address their concerns.”

On May 5, Book Soup workers publicly announced their intention to unionize. A month later, after they filed for an election and braced themselves for a fight, Vroman’s voluntarily recognized the union.

“We always say, ‘We prepare for the worst and hope for the best,'” Serrano said, “and in this case our hopes were better than our preparations … it turned out to be a relief in the end.”

“We care about our colleagues at Book Soup,” said Cowlishaw, “and we’re optimistic to find common ground and a path towards a healthy work environment for the long-term viability of Book Soup and the people that make Book Soup the legendary bookstore.” that it has become.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-07-26/book-soup-west-hollywoods-storied-indie-bookstore-has-formed-a-union West Hollywood’s Book Soup unionizes

Alley Einstein

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