Julia Holland wasn’t sure about unionizing at first. Holland, who began working in summer 2020 at Politics and Prose, didn’t have enough history at the independent bookstore and D.C. institution to know whether some of her co-workers’ grievances over pay or understaffing were just related to the difficulties brought on by the coronavirus.
But as the pandemic persisted, many of those workplace concerns did, too. So when her colleagues began signing union cards with the United Food and Commercial Workers union in October, Holland was completely onboard.
This past week, workers at the bookstore’s three locations filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election on whether to unionize, after owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine declined to voluntarily recognize the union effort.
If the employees are successful, Politics and Prose would be among the first bookstores in the District to unionize, in an industry where unions historically have been rare but are starting to take hold. More than 70 percent of the 55 employees that union organizers said would be part of the union signed union authorization cards, which they presented to Graham earlier this month. But Graham and Muscatine said they don’t believe that number is reflective of the entire staff, which consists of about 105 people. The two sides will settle on the total number of union-eligible employees ahead of the election.
The effort is part of a national labor movement that’s been surging over the past two years. A Starbucks in Buffalo became the first of the chain to unionize earlier this month. Earlier this year, Moe’s Books, an independent bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., unionized. Fueled by the coronavirus pandemic and labor market demands, experts say workers are feeding off the energy from other movements to feel empowered to start organizing in their own workplaces.
Employees at Politics and Prose say they want to join the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400 to help them get a voice in health and safety policies, a living wage and clearer pay transparency.
But the owners say the bookstore has a history of working with employees to address these types of concerns, and bringing in a union would make the local bookstore less personal. Graham and Muscatine, who were both in unions before buying the shop in 2011, said in an email to workers that they “fully support the right of staff members at P & P to unionize if a majority desires it.”
But “we worry that bringing a union into P & P would alter the culture of the bookstore and coffeehouse in profound ways, turning our workplace into a more transactional, impersonal, and rigid environment,” they wrote, going on to say that unions “add a layer of uniformity and bureaucracy that can stifle the kind of originality and flexibility that have helped make P & P the valued community enterprise it is.”
Graham and Muscatine declined to recognize the cards, wanting a procedural vote to give more people an opportunity to weigh the options, they said in their staff email. And shortly after employees filed the petition for an election, the owners hired Jones Day for legal representation, one of the largest law firms in the country that has been known for aggressive union contract negotiations.
Graham and Muscatine said they hired lawyers from Jones Day because they had previously worked with them on other matters.
Politics and Prose opened in Chevy Chase in 1984 and has become a long-standing institution in the District, attracting appearances from high-profile figures such as Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton for book talks broadcast on C-SPAN. The bookstore has cultivated a strong following and customer base in D.C. — some of whom were surprised by the owners’ decision to not voluntarily recognize the union.
“Really hope that @PoliticsProse — my childhood happy place — doesn’t lose my and others’ business forever by myopically refusing to recognize @PolProseUnion,” one user posted on Twitter.
This isn’t the first time employees have attempted to unionize at the bookstore. Workers at Politics and Prose tried to organize under the previous ownership, which also opposed the effort.
Janice Fine, professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and director of the Workplace Justice Lab at Rutgers, said the current movement among workers is being fueled by a number of things, including heightened awareness of working conditions during the pandemic. Because there is such a high demand for labor across the country, workers feel more empowered to ask for more from their employers, Fine said.
Add in a base of well-educated and often liberal workers and consumers in bookstores who are watching other workplaces around the country unionize, Fine said, and there’s strong conditions for organizing.
“It makes sense that it’s happening now, and it makes it sense that it’s happening in bookstores,” Fine said.
The union will spend the next few days settling on the parameters of the election, including who gets a vote, when and where it will be held, all in accordance with the NLRB. The election will probably be held by the end of next month.
Employees said they are organizing because they love the bookstore and see the union as a way for it to grow.
Isa Salazar, subscriptions coordinator at Politics and Prose, said she has loved her time working at the bookstore, being around other like-minded people and getting to meet authors. But said she sees the union as an opportunity for the store to improve.
“I’ve had such wonderful times here,” Salazar said. “But I just feel like the love that we have for reading and for book culture is not something that should be taken advantage of.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Janice Fine as research director at the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University. She no longer holds that position but remains a professor at Rutgers. The story has been corrected. In addition, the article previously cited a tweet by the Politics & Prose Workers Union, claiming that the law firm Jones Day had worked on President Donald Trump’s efforts to challenge the 2020 election results. The firm says it represented the Pennsylvania GOP on a constitutional issue involving mail-in ballots and Trump was not a client.