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College Bookstore Allegedly Fires Workers After Union Vote [UPDATED]

by Claire Voon on June 30, 2014

Book Culture's Broadway store (image via Google Street View)

Book Culture’s Broadway store (image via Google Street View)

Following its employees’ vote to unionize at last Tuesday’s elections, independent bookseller Book Culture fired five of its thirty staffers, Gothamist reported. Workers at the store, which has two locations unofficially serving Columbia University in Morningside Heights, referred to issues including “low starting pay (about $9.00/hour), nonexistent or inconsistent raises, an unclear path to promotion, blatant favoritism, and disrespectful comments from the owner,” frustrations similar to those reported by the Columbia Spectator in 2009.

Casey McNamara, one of three employees at the 112th Street store fired only hours after the vote, claimed that the dismissals were in direct response to their support of unionization. All three are also banned from setting foot in the bookstore. Emails obtained by Gothamist have Chris Doeblin, one of Book Culture’s owners, stating, “It was indicated to me … that two people in our mangament [sic] group voted in the union and effectively undermined the interests of the store. The store always being in opposition to the Union. Unfortunately there is no other recourse but to remove these people from our employ effective immediately.”

One of the flyers advocating a boycott against Book Culture (photo courtesy Bwog)

One of the flyers advocating a boycott against Book Culture (photo courtesy Bwog)

Two managers were also fired from the store’s Broadway location. Book Culture’s owners claim that these dismissals were due to labor law conflicts since they hold positions as supervisors, and the National Labor Relations Board cites employers who “dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization” as an unfair labor practice.

Elizabeth Heintges, one of the two managers, however, told Gothamist that they were “given an ultimatum saying that either we had to stay on as employees who are completely, 100% behind the interests of the owners, and renounce our support for and allegiance to the union, or we would not be able to remain employees.” Around 50 percent of Book Culture’s employees are reportedly managers, but since none have substantial authority over other staffers (including hiring or firing them), they are technically still permitted to vote in a union election.

In response to the events, Book Culture issued a statement last Friday, announcing its recognition of the union as well as plans to begin contract negotiations shortly:

On June 24th the employees of Book Culture participated in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board to determine whether they want to be represented by a union. They voted that they want union representation.  Book Culture respects and supports U.S. labor law and its goals, including the right to union representation.  Once the NLRB certifies those election results, Book Culture will recognize the union as the bargaining agent for the employees.  We expect to be engaging in contract negotiations soon and we look forward to working amicably with the union.

As part of our country’s labor-management legal structure intended to prevent employer-dominated unions, labor law mandates that supervisors are not allowed to be members of the collective bargaining unit, because their job is to supervise the bargaining unit employees.  Following Tuesday’s election, it became clear that several of the store’s supervisors were not willing to continue to perform the role of supervisors within the new environment of having the unionized work force.  We respect them for their candor, but they could not continue as employees when they were unwilling to perform their job’s most essential functions.  We are saddened to lose some good colleagues.

Book Culture’s business model, as a bookstore in today’s challenging environment for independent brick-and-mortar book sellers, has been to survive by bring pleasure to our customers and by treating our employees with respect and fairness.  That will continue to be our business model.

If you have further questions, please feel free to contact the store.

You can also email the owners directly:

Chris Doeblin – chris@bookculture.com

Annie Hedrick – annie@bookculture.com

The five dismissed employees distributed flyers on Saturday calling for a boycott of the store — supported by the remaining employees — until they are rehired, according to Bwog, an independent news site run by Columbia students. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which finds the firings unfair and the large amount of managers questionable, has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against Doeblin. The case will be presented at a hearing held by the National Labor Relations Board.

Update, 7/7, 12:34pm EDT: In an email to customers obtained by Hyperallergic, the owners of Book Culture announced that they have rehired four of the five terminated employees:

To Our Friends,
We have re-hired all four store managers who were terminated last week. There is no longer a labor dispute. Book Culture has now recognized the RWDSU as the union representing our employees.
We are respectful of the rights of our employees to unionize and of the views of our customers in the community and the university. As we have gotten to know the RWDSU this past week, we believe that we and the RWDSU are well aligned in urging all customers to shop at Book Culture to support your local independent bookstore and to support the unionized employees who depend on your patronage of the two stores.
Sincerely,
Chris, Annie & the Book Culture Team

According to the Columbia Spectator, the fifth employee, Casey McNamara, “agreed to take a severance package from the company and … both sides dropped their claims against each other.”

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  • Shawn Chapman

    “Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.” –Barack Obama

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