Half-price books United Workers seizes on this ‘historic period of the labor movement’

Four Half Price Books locations in the Twin Cities area made history after successfully organizing the first union in the company’s fifty-year history, winning their National Labor Relations Board elections last winter . Half Price Books Workers Unitedaffiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers, is now encouraging booksellers to unionize stores in Illinois and Indiana.

The national discount book chain temporarily closed all of its stores on March 18, 2020, due to the pandemic. Some locations reopened on May 2 that year, with others continuing to reopen stores through June, as permitted by state and local regulations.

“We all work together, we make demands that we know will improve our conditions, and we have not strayed from those principles.”

Two weeks after the closures were announced, 78% of its workforce was fired or fired. Those who were kept “expected to see a decrease in scheduled hours or a reduction in pay” that would vary based on salary, such as reported by The Dallas News.

Many employees who lost their jobs during this period never came back, even as some sites began to reopen in May 2020, as permitted by state and local regulations. Before the pandemic, Half Price Books had more than 2,700 employees; compared to the approximately 2,000 employees currently in the company.

“It was very difficult to know how the layoffs were decided, who had a say and who didn’t, as well as the recall process,” said Hanna Anderson, 25. The progressive. Anderson lives in Minneapolis and has worked at Half Price Books in St. Paul for two and a half years.

“A lot of us didn’t know why we lost our jobs. Once the store reopened, we were working with a team of ten people whereas before the pandemic we had a team of twenty-five people,” says Anderson “The company was basically saying, ‘Do the work of twenty-five people when you only have ten people.’ It was unreasonable, and we feel like the hard work we put in every day was not recognized or appreciated.

The pandemic has only intensified the underlying issues that many workers were already facing on the job: reduced staffing, erratic schedules, long hours, low pay, and overwhelming workloads. When Half Price Books stores resumed operations, there was widespread confusion over security protocols and their enforcement, or lack thereof. Workers have struggled with harassment from customers who refuse to wear face masks or engage in social distancing, as well as other issues they say have been ignored by their employer.

“At the start of the pandemic, we realized there were a lot of concerns that the company didn’t seem aware of or interested in addressing,” says 34-year-old David Gutsche. The progressive. Gutsche worked at the Half Price Books store in Roseville, Minnesota for nine years.

Gutsche discussed the possibility of organizing with colleagues and began researching how to form a union, which is how he discovered a web resource published by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). As the largest private sector union in the country, UFCW organizers have helped retail outlets like Politics and prosewhich became the first bookstore in Washington, DC, to unionize when UFCW Local 400 was officially recognized as a collective bargaining agent for workers of all three slots on January 3, 2022.

“What motivated us to get to this point was that the company didn’t listen to our concerns,” Gutsche says. “As the pressure started to mount again, people were getting more and more unhappy with their working conditions and what we were paid. So I contacted someone from UFCW. We met in George Floyd Square on Help [in 2021]which was very appropriate, and the efforts went from there over the next two months.

The retail industry is notoriously difficult to organize due to high turnover rates and burnout. Employees at Half Price Books in Roseville connected with employees at other stores in the Twin Cities area and established the bargaining power needed to negotiate their first contract.

Half Price Books stores in Roseville, St. Paul and Coon Rapids, Minnesota, filed a union election petition with the NLRB in October 2021. Around this time, a series of labor actions were taking the country by storm in this which we called “Strikeinvolving more than 100,000 workers in various jobs in the private sector. There has also been a grassroots push to organize workplaces that have traditionally lacked unions to fight for wage increases to meet the rising cost of living and inflation, better working conditions, fair hours and other benefits.

Founded in 1972 with a single used bookstore in Dallas, Texas, Half price books has since extended into a national chain of 123 stores in nineteen states: Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin . As with other companies facing the possibility of a unionized workforce, Half Price Books tried to stop these efforts in Minnesota before their influence could spread nationwide.

Each of the Half Price Books employees who spoke to The progressive describe captivated audience meetings with workers to dissuade them from forming a union in their stores. Company representatives have even come to meet workers at the sites who filed for union elections, including CEO Sharon Anderson and President Kathy Doyle Thomas, who confirmed the visits had taken place in an email. to The progressive.

“We do our best to listen to feedback from our employees and make changes to company policies when we can,” Thomas says in the email. “We are disappointed that conversations with our employees in unionized stores will now have to go through their union representatives and we will not be able to act as quickly.”

Shortly after filing, a company review was posted at every Half Price Books store in Minnesota that filed for union election. The notice said, in part, “This is a very serious decision, which could affect your professional future and the future of those who depend on you. We believe that once you get all the facts about the union, you will decide that our future will be better without a union.

The notice was criticized by Half Price Books Workers United as “condescending”, featuring “vague threats” and “explicitly anti-union sentiments”. Gutsche says the company apologized for the notice, but that “they made it clear that they were not following this process.”

“One of their tactics was to portray the union as an outside force coming in,” Anderson says. “It’s something we took to heart. We were like, ‘No, we’re the union. Don’t portray the union as this outside villain. We are the union. In this climate of Amazon and Starbucks, we really thought it would be a good opportunity for Half Price Books to show they supported unions, but they chose not to recognize us. They spent a lot of energy trying to stop us from unionizing, which led many of my colleagues to unionize.

On December 16, 2021, three stores in Minnesota voted to unionize with UFCW. Less than a month later, workers at the St. Louis Park location won its union election on January 6, becoming the fourth store to unionize in the Twin Cities area.

The Minnesota Half Price Books Workers United four-store committee is currently at the bargaining table to negotiate a contract with the company. The union is requiring increased wages, job security, staffing levels appropriately matched to each store’s workload, transparency with layoffs, sufficient training time and updated training materials for new employees, and the creation of a health and safety committee.

Gutsche says the reason for the success of the union elections at his store was twofold.

“First, the camaraderie and togetherness that we have as a unit, that no matter what was said in a meeting or what the company said to us individually or collectively, we supported each other and knew why we organizations,” he said. “Second, we rallied around a set of principles that we all knew were important. We all work together, we make demands that we know will improve our conditions, and we have not deviated from these principles.

News of Minnesota Half Price Books Workers United’s victory traveled to Greenwood, Indiana, a southern suburb of Indianapolis. A week after the Minnesota stores went public, employees at the Greenwood store received a dollar increase in their hourly wages, followed by an additional dollar increase a few weeks later.

“The whole time I worked for this company, I never received an annual raise,” said Mike, who asked to be identified by his first name only. The progressive. Mike lives in Indianapolis and works at the Half Price Books store in Greenwood. “That was the story for a lot of us. We worked through the pandemic, for several years, and for some reason we didn’t get an annual raise or it wasn’t up to par. height of cost of living increases When Minnesota went public it forced the hand of Half Price Books and showed they had the money all along to do this We knew if we did something about it, we could get more because we are worth more.

Once a labor campaign was underway in Greenwood, the company followed the same playbook of union-busting tactics it used in Minnesota. Despite the company’s refusal, workers at Half Price Books in Greenwood filed on March 1 and won their union election the 1st of April.

“Half Price Books’ organizing effort has been a significant success,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in an email to The progressive. “These organizing victories also prove, once again, that we are in the midst of a historic period in the labor movement where retail and food workers everywhere are speaking out, organizing and demanding real and substantial changes in the workplace.

Following the union’s election victories in Minnesota, a group of Half Price Books workers at a store in Niles, Illinois contacted the union on Twitter, which in turn put them in touch with organizers UFCW regional offices in Illinois. Workers at Niles Half Price Books applied to unionize on March 25 and elections are scheduled for May 6.

“Start talking to your colleagues,” Gutsche says. “Engage in conversations, discover the kind of collective action you can do together and the principles you share as workers.”

About Joey J. Hott

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