Some staff members at Politics and Prose, which has three bookstores in Washington, D.C., are seeking to unionize; on Monday, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 400, filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for an election.
As reported by DCist, the organizers, saying that a majority of staff support a union, wanted owners Bradley Graham--who is also president of the American Booksellers Association--and Lissa Muscatine to recognize the union voluntarily. Last week, several of the organizers met with Graham and said that "a super majority" of employees supported the effort and had signed cards to authorize a union. But Graham and Muscatine declined to accept the union voluntarily, resulting in the UFCW formally requesting a vote that will be overseen by the NLRB.
In memos to staff, Graham and Muscatine wrote that while "we fully recognize the rights of employees to seek union representation and will certainly abide by the outcome of a formal election... a number of P&P employees don't desire a union, and we don't want to be the ones imposing an outcome on them. We think everyone's voice should count in a fair process."
On Twitter, the Politics & Prose Workers Union said that it is "a collective of employees representing many different departments within the company committed to creating a fair and equitable workplace we can all be proud of. Our decision to unionize comes from a place of both care and concern. We are concerned about the future of P&P if we continue along a path that undervalues the staff who work hard to make this bookseller a success. Too many of us are overworked due to chronic understaffing and our inability to retain employees. Even amid a deadly pandemic, in which we risk our lives to keep the store open, we have no say in policy decisions that affect our health and safety. We live in one of the most expensive cities in the country, but we lack a living wage. Promotions and pay scales are opaque and inconsistent, creating a culture of resentment and inequality instead of openness and fairness. And we have seen colleagues speak up about these concerns, only to be pushed out of the workplace. This bookstore could not run without us, and we, the workers, are tired of our concerns being ignored.
"We believe unionizing is the best way for us to address our concerns, both now and into the future. Collective bargaining provides us with the opportunity and the protection to openly voice our concerns to management, so we can collaborate together as equals to create immediate and positive change at P&P. While we have chosen to affiliate with [UFCW Local400], it is the staff of Politics & Prose that will be gaining a stronger voice and a seat at the table by unionizing.
"Politics & Prose has long been considered a progressive and inclusive bookstore, and our decision to unionize is a natural next step in the company's ongoing effort to put our shared values into practice. We're doing this for each other--for all of us to be respected, for all of us to be valued, for all of us to be in a safe environment."
In their statements, Graham and Muscatine, who bought Politics and Prose in 2011, said in part, "As co-owners, we've continued to grow the company, re-investing considerably in the business. We've added staff (and new positions like HR), expanded inventory and programs, enlarged and renovated the [flagship Connecticut Avenue] location, and established two branches. Throughout, we've focused on ensuring employees feel valued and secure in their work, and we've provided pay, benefits, and bonuses that surpass what other comparable independent booksellers typically offer. Additionally, during a pandemic that presented huge financial challenges to the business, we kept staff employed--without layoffs--even as other companies were cutting back on staff and wages."
They noted that they have been members of unions (they both worked for years at the Washington Post): "We understand firsthand how unions work and how they impact businesses. We know that unions alter workplaces--sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. For P&P in particular--a small, local independent bookstore--we believe that the introduction of a union would undermine the character and culture of a community institution and, at the same time, be unlikely to achieve the changes that unions typically promise" as well as "make our workplace more transactional, less personal, and less flexible."
Among other points, they argue that many discussions about workplace concerns, which "have led to important improvements such as rising wages, diversifying our hiring, creating new staff positions, strengthening communications, streamlining personnel processes, and expanding career development opportunities," would in the future need a union representative present.
They also wrote that "over the years, we've been able to help staff members facing serious personal medical, mental health, or family issues by providing special accommodations that enabled them to get through trying times. The presence of a union, with contractual rules and regulations, would limit our freedom to respond to the needs of individual staff members."
They encouraged staff members to talk with one another and stated that, abiding by NLRB guidelines, they will be "communicating more with all of you as issues come up. Our goal is to ensure that every P&P employee has the opportunity to consider the pros and cons of unionizing and to vote in a democratic, free, and fair election."