The book world is not immune to the recent uptick in labor activism. What was originally dubbed the “summer of strikes,” shows every sign of continuing through the remainder of the year and beyond.
Even though the numbers are comparatively small, employees in bookstores, and publishing firms have been recently involved in strikes. On a larger scale, motion picture, TV and other media workers have been out for months. Issues include wages, health care and working conditions as well as concerns raised by new developments in technology like artificial intelligence and streaming.
At one end of the spectrum are strikes at bookstores small and large.
The one day, Sept 4, Labor Day work stoppage at all three Powell’s Bookstores in Portland was widely reported in the Oregon media.
There are nearly 300 Powell's employees represented by ILWU Local 5, which has bargained for Powell’s workers since 2000. An August report said that 92% voted to authorize a strike.
Powell's management proposed a starting wage of $16.25. The union is asking for a "livable wage" citing $21.85 an hour based on living wage data compiled by MIT. Affordable health care also tops the list of worker demands.
In a published statement Powell's Books said it "has successfully engaged in contract negotiations with ILWU Local 5 for more than two decades, each time finding common ground that unites us."
In a mid-September update, Myka Dubay representing Local 5 said employees had made some progress on health care, but were still far apart on wages.
Half Price Books
Also recently in the news was a July walk out by employees of Half Price Books at four locations in Minnesota’s Twin Cities region. According to a report by KSTP-TV The workers are part of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Locals 1189 and 663, and the four stores, in St. Paul, Blaine, Roseville, and St. Louis Park, closed temporarily in July. The striking workers reportedly thought that the 1% wage increase offered by management was insufficient. According to a union statement at that time, eight Half Price Books stores have so-far voted to unionize and others are considering similar action.
Half Price Books president Kathy Doyle Thomas said the company could not discuss specifics about the negotiations, adding that the company "strives to provide competitive benefits and good working conditions for all of our employees across the country and has been a progressive workplace for all of our 50+ years." Half Price books has over 125 outlets for new and used books in 17 states according to its Wikipedia profile.
Barnes & Noble
Also in July, Modern Retail reported that the Union Square flagship is one of four Barnes & Noble stores that have unionized this year. A college store location at Rutgers University, a store in Hadley Massachusetts, and one in Brooklyn have all also voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store union over recent months.
According to the company’s website Barnes & Noble has a retail presence in every state, with approximately 600 bookstores. Between retail stores and online operations, it sells over 190 million physical books per year.
In February of this year AP reported striking union members at HarperCollins Publishers approved a tentative agreement ending a walkout that lasted more than three months and became the center of an ongoing debate about salaries in the industry.
More than 200 members, from editorial assistants to publicists and designers, of Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers union had been working without a contract since last spring. They went on strike in early November 2022, with wages, workplace diversity and union protection among the issues. Notably, the union called for raising the entry level salary from $45,000 to $50,000.
Surprisingly union activities at Amazon in 2023 seem to have stalled. Though there were many attempts to unionize Amazon facilities in 2022, little was reported during the current year. In June 2023 Amazon had an estimated 1.4 million employees worldwide, a slight decrease from the prior year. Amazon is the largest retailer of books in the world. A Nov. 2022 estimate put their market share at 40%.
Writers Guild (WGA)
Recent book trade labor disputes are relatively minor in size when compared to the 2023 Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike which began on May 2 and reached a tentative agreement late in Sept. The WGA represents an estimated 11,500 members according to their strike action site.
The long running work stoppage results from an ongoing labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Produces (AMPTP).
One major issue in the dispute is residual payments from streaming media. The WGA claims that AMPTP's share of such residuals has cut much of the writers' average incomes compared to a decade ago. Another is future use of artificial intelligence (AI). The union wants use of AI, such as ChatGPT, to be limited to research or to helping with script ideas and not as a replacement for the services of writers.
In July of this year WGA strikers were joined by Screen Actors Guild (SAG) - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Strike (AFTRA) in industry wide actions that have have halted most, if not all, major American motion picture and television production, and set up picket lines throughout the entertainment industry. According to its website SAG-AFTRA represents approximately 160,000 media professionals. Despite the tentative settlement of the WGA strike the SAG-AFTRA dispute is ongoing and has expanded to include the multi-billion dollar video gaming industry.
In broader terms The National Labor Relations Board reports 1,200 petitions for union representation in the first six months of fiscal year 2023, up from 1,174 a year prior. Unfair labor practice charges rose to 9,592, an increase of 16%. Meanwhile, Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker tracked an uptick in the number of workers involved in work stoppages, from 140,000 in 2021 to 224,000 in 2022. It tracked 424 work stoppages in 2022, and reports 199 strikes so far this year.
This continued swell of the labor movement underscores the dissatisfaction that many low-wage workers experience. Whether in retail, service or hospitality, workers who are organizing voice concerns about pay, schedules, and working conditions that are influenced by corporate entities.
In August, the Treasury Department released a first-of-its-kind report on labor unions. According to Laura Feiveson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Microeconomics, the report highlights “the evidence that unions serve to strengthen the middle class and grow the economy at large. Over the last half century, middle-class households have experienced stagnating wages, rising income volatility, and reduced intergenerational mobility, even as the economy as a whole has prospered.
“Unions,” she wrote, “can improve the well-being of middle-class workers in ways that directly combat these negative trends. Pro-union policy can make a real difference to middle-class households by raising their incomes, improving their work environments, and boosting their job satisfaction. In doing so, unions can help to make the economy more equitable and robust.”
Reach RBH writer Susan Halas at firstname.lastname@example.org