Goliath Needs a Union, But David Does, Too

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz


The Strand, New York City's beloved independent used bookstore, is embroiled in a union struggle. The gargantuan bookworm wonderland has long been considered a model of good retailer policies by worker's rights activists, and most of The Strand’s employees have been members of the United Auto Workers Union for more than three decades. But seeking to cut costs, The Strand has hired more non-unionized managers than ever. The new contract offered to employees would reduce their paid personal days and sick days by nearly half, and almost double the amount each employee would pay for their health insurance premiums. Managers are also mulling over a two-tier contract system (different policies for employees depending on when they got hired), which is a classic union-busting move.

Now the workers are joining forces with Occupy Wall Street activists, who have set up camp just a few blocks away in Union Square. “They’re counting on the fact that if we get lower wages we’ll just go find another job,” an employee told Metrofocus. “But we want to protect the interests of the working class.” The Strand blames the policy changes on a "very challenging economy" as well as "E-readers and the Internet"; meanwhile, employees point to "record sales" last Christmas. 

Labor movements, usually grassroots ones, have started to target large corporations—Starbucks, Amazon, Apple—mostly because their efforts will affect the largest amount of workers possible. But just as the Amazons of the world need unionizing, so do The Strands. Mom-and-pop shops do have slimmer profit margins than the big chains, but they also take a cue from more corporate workplaces by counting on the ignorance and apathy of a generation who grew up in anti-union, low-wage service era (many of these new Strand managers, for example, are coming straight from Borders). Young workers just trying to get by might agree to anything to hold onto the job they have. Some will channel the outrage of Occupy, but others may very well keep quiet.

Of course, the recession and online shopping are genuine concerns for independent retail shops. So is the rising cost of rent. That means that in order to compensate employees fairly, independent stories need to forgo some profit—and we as customers need to be willing to pay more for our goods.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ktylerkonk.