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Politics & Prose becomes first unionized bookstore in D.C.

An audience listens as former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D) speaks at Politics & Prose in 2019. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Longtime D.C. institution Politics & Prose became the first unionized bookstore in Washington after the union and owners announced Monday they reached an agreement to voluntarily recognize the union.

Employees will join United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400, after the store reached a card check agreement for 54 union-eligible employees. Politics & Prose Bookstore employs just over 100 workers at its three locations.

“We are proud to join the growing movement of booksellers and baristas across the country who have unionized their workplaces,” the bookstore’s organizing committee wrote in a statement. “Forming our union has not only served as an affirmation of our shared values within the Politics and Prose community, it will also strengthen our workplace and ensure the long-term success of our beloved community hub.”

Bookstore workers across the country are organizing. D.C.’s Politics and Prose employees are among them.

Owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine initially declined to voluntarily recognize the union effort and hired Jones Day, a firm known for aggressive union contract negotiation. But they pivoted two weeks ago to work with a local labor attorney who represents unions and nonprofits and negotiate the scope of who would be included in the bargaining unit.

Last week, the union and owners reached an agreement on which employees would be included in the bargaining unit and moved forward with the card check process, which was conducted by a third party. The union had 35 out of 54 cards signed, triggering Graham and Muscatine to recognize the union as the collective bargaining for the bookstore on Friday.

“As stewards of a local, independent business with a 37-year legacy of progressive management and mission, we’ve valued collaborating with employees to solve problems and address needs, and we look forward to working with the union in the same spirit,” Graham and Muscatine wrote in a statement released Monday morning.

Now that the union is recognized, the bookstore will move forward on negotiating its first contract. Workers at Politics & Prose said they hope a union contract will help them get a larger voice in health and safety policy decisions and earn a living wage. They also said they hope the contract can help address issues with understaffing and pay transparency.

Politics & Prose owners move toward voluntary recognition of union effort

The unionization is part of a national labor movement that’s been surging over the past two years, intensified by the coronavirus pandemic and labor market demands. Politics & Prose also joins a subset of the labor movement among independent bookstores, where unionizing has traditionally been rare.

Alan Hanson, an organizing director with UFCW Local 400, said this is the most organizing he’s seen in his 22 years working in labor.

“It’s unprecedented in my time in the labor movement,” Hanson said. “And it’s indicative of some larger movement in the country.”

Workers first approached Graham last month with signed union authorization cards from what they said was 70 percent of 55 employees they determined were eligible for the bargaining unit. The bargaining unit negotiations agreed upon last week shifted which departments and employees would be included, bringing the new total to 54 and including a range of different people.

Two days after they were initially asked to voluntarily recognize the union, Graham and Muscatine sent out a staff email explaining that they were choosing not to recognize the cards, opting instead to hold a formal election through the National Labor Relations Board to ensure that no employees were left out of the decision, including those who they said they knew opposed unionizing.

Strikes are sweeping the labor market as workers wield new leverage

The bookstore, which opened in Chevy Chase in 1984 and attracts appearances from high-profile figures such as Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton for book talks broadcast on C-SPAN, initially received some criticism from its loyal customer base over its decision to not voluntarily recognize the union.

A week later, after looking at the different options to move forward, Graham and Muscatine announced that negotiating the scope of the bargaining unit, or determining who would be eligible in the union, would be the best way to represent all the interests of their employees.

The news received a range of response on Twitter from longtime customers, authors and other unions on Monday, many congratulating the union for being formally recognized.

“Starting the new year with fantastic news,” one user wrote. “DC’s first unionized bookstore!”

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the National Labor Relations Board as the National Labor Review Board. The article has been corrected.

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