News | Morningside Heights

Book Culture employees say they were illegally fired after union vote

  • Sarah Kerson for Spectator
    LABOR BOOKS | RWDSU intern Jamie Pagirsky (l.) and former Book Culture employee Kerry Henderson distribute flyers outside the 112th Street branch of the bookstore on Friday.

Workers at Book Culture are demanding that store owners rehire five employees who were terminated earlier this week amid disputes over a unionization vote.

The former employees said that store co-owners Chris Doeblin and Annie Hedrick illegally fired them after they participated in votes to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Doeblin said that four of the former employees were managers and thus not eligible to vote in a unionization election. Employees and union representatives, however, say that while they were called managers, they did not have any of the managerial powers defined by the National Labor Relations Act.

Doeblin said he fired a fifth employee—the union organizer—after he found her eavesdropping on a conversation between him and another manager.

Current employees have joined the former workers and union representatives to picket outside both Book Culture locations on 112th and 114th streets since Thursday, asking passersby to boycott the stores until the owners rehire the terminated employees. The RWDSU has also filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against Book Culture, saying the firings were retaliations against union organizing.

“Just for the way he retaliated against these people, it proves the employees here need a union,” Peter Montalbano, an organizer for the RWDSU, said.

The dispute started Tuesday, when employees at the 112th Street location voted to join the union.

According to Casey McNamara, one of the employees fired, Doeblin challenged the votes of Rebecca Goodbourn and Kerry Henderson, saying they were not allowed to vote because they were managers. The two were dismissed shortly after the vote, McNamara said, while she herself was fired after Doeblin found her listening in on a conversation between him and another manager.

On Wednesday, employees at the 114th Street location held a similar vote to join the RWDSU. McNamara said that another two managers—Cameron Addicott and Elizabeth Heintges, BC ’14—had their votes challenged and were later dismissed.

“We were not expecting this at all,” Maxine Anderson, an employee at the 114th Street store, said about the dismissals. “Both sides ran a respectful campaign. We were ready to negotiate. I don’t think any of us were ready for this.”

Doeblin said he fired the four managers because they voted to unionize even though they were told they were not allowed to. Managers, considered “supervisors,” are not covered by the NLRA.

“Judgment has to be used when promoting, hiring, firing, directing, supervising, and sometimes disciplining and rewarding,” Doeblin said. “And we can’t have union employees in charge of those.”

The NLRA defines “supervisors” as individuals who have the ability to “hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action” using “independent judgment.”

Heintges and Addicott, however, said that they were never aware they had such powers over other employees.

“We were required to open and close the store,” Addicott, who had worked at the 114th Street store since October, said. “We’ve never been told we’re legally allowed to hire and fire and discipline employees.”

“We never had the authority to hire people, fire people,” Heintges, who had worked at Book Culture for one and a half years, said. “I’ve never signed a managerial contract where I was aware of that job description.”

Other Book Culture managers interviewed described similar duties as Addicott and Heintges—Cody Madsen, who works at the 112th Street location, said that as manager, he is responsible for coordinating events, managing the sales floor, and ordering periodicals. He declined to say whether he supported unionization.

Doeblin said that while he’s not objecting to his employees’ right to unionize, unions pose difficulties for him as an independent bookstore owner.

“When you go into negotiations, this is the action that will be taken,” he said, referring to the pickets. “Once the union is there, it’s very difficult to try to discuss any issue.”

Such difficulties also came to light in 2009, when employees—then part of the Local 169 Workers United union—complained about withheld holiday pay, inconsistent health benefits, and antiunion practices by the owners. At the time, Doeblin also expressed frustration with union activities and said that he would eliminate the union if he had the power to do so.

Five years later, his opinion hasn’t changed.

“I don’t know why this union is so rabidly attacking us,” Doeblin said. “Why not unionize Barnes & Noble? Or Amazon? … Why is this union here, organizing and defaming a small, independent bookstore?”

He added that the past week’s pickets have affected the number of customers at both stores.

Janna Pea, deputy communications director for the RWDSU, said the union’s next step is to get the five employees rehired before negotiating a new union contract with the bookstore.

“First and foremost now is the workers’ interests—to get their job back,” she said.

The fired workers, too, said that they don’t want a drawn-out dispute with the owners.

“We don’t want to shut it down. We love this bookstore,” Henderson said. “I love working at this store. … I want a union to ensure there’s a safe and happy work environment.”

“The employees at both stores—we don’t want the bookstore to close,” Heintges said. “Hopefully this won’t drag out.”

In case the dispute lasts until the fall-semester textbook rush, however, Montalbano said the union has reached out to professors to discuss the possibility of a boycott. He said that while the RWDSU supports independent bookstores, small businesses are not exempt from labor laws.

“This bookstore is a valuable piece of the community here, but every worker in this country has a right to organize,” Montalbano said. “We organize for anyone who wants a union.”

news@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ColumbiaSpec

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Anonymous posted on

This is such a stupid article. Is this all the spec can come up with? The author is such a left wing nut

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Yeah, um ... posted on

I'm certain that a local business violating the NLRA is not a "stupid" story, but your comment is pretty dumb.

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a book culture employee posted on

Just to be clear, the conversation that Casey was fired for "eavesdropping" on was taking place in a room that has no door.

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another book culture employee posted on

further clarification - only days before, Chris Doeblin wrote us all a letter emphasizing the "open door policy" at the store! And the "conversation" in question was the first illegal firing that day

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Anonymous posted on

This was on other sites like over a week ago. Nice work Spec

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Crushin' posted on

Pagirsky is damn cute. He can protest me anytime.

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Anonymous posted on

I've shopped at Book Culture since the old Labyrinth days - I've dropped several grand on books, easy. But I'm not setting foot in the store until the management makes this right. Union busting - which this is - is vile.

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Anonymous posted on

“I don’t know why this union is so rabidly attacking us,” Doeblin said. “Why not unionize Barnes & Noble? Or Amazon? … Why is this union here, organizing and defaming a small, independent bookstore?”

As an employee: "the union" is not attacking you, Chris; your employees have had issues with store management (not getting holiday pay or sick days or raises you claimed you would pay us; not being told we even have these benefits; being cursed at and threatened if we bring any of these issues up) for over five years (see the last Spec article) and we're simply trying to get a legally binding guarantee that we will actually receive what you promised us.

The union is here because you're violating the law, and the public campaign has escalated because now you're REALLY violating the law. You have the power to end this immediately by rehiring the illegally fired employees and sitting down with us to negotiate a contract.

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Anonymous posted on

This is a private store. Many of the "laws" you mention do not apply to establishments with under 50 employees. You are free to work elsewhere and pay your large union dues to some other boss who will control you.

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Anonymous posted on

You're not free to fire people for starting a union, but your customers are free to boycott you until you reinstate them. I've shopped at Book Culture/Labyrinth since 2005. I probably spend around $200 there each year. I won't be back until the fired employees are.

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Anonymous posted on

Small establishments are free to fire people for any reason they want. They are at will employees. What about the rights of mom and pop store owners?

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PhillyLion posted on

I never make a trip back home to NYC without stopping at Book Culture. But I won't go back in until workers are respected.

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Here's to Book Culture posted on

What in gods name do books store clerks need a union for? Don't like your pay and benefits... go get another job! The dozen of you who work for this independent book store should be ashamed... one of the many reasons that amazon and b&n can run shops out of business is that they have the resources to squash this sort of non-sense. You are just dooming our local bookshop by thinking it should be a career to support your upper-middle class lifestyle...it's not.

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Anonymous posted on

Agreed - Don't worry Book Culture; I will by 3x as many books as I normally do to make up the difference for any moronic union supporter who stops showing up. What do they think you run, a coal mine?

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Franky CC'15 posted on

Yeah...anyone who has taken Principles of Economics knows that paying these workers more via unionized collective bargaining will make our books cost more. No thank you! Don't like your job, quit! Hey, I'll pick up 20 hours a week!

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Anonymous posted on

Anyone who has ONLY taken Principles of Economics "knows" a lot of things.

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Anonymous posted on

Store owners should have the right to choose whether they go union or not. How sad that this union is going to shut down a store that is one of the few remaining small businesses in the area. I am a teacher and book culture has long been a supporter of public education in the city. Union will be responsible for shutting down this wonderful neighborhood spot and for ruining the education system in this country. If I had a choice (which I do not) I would not be part of a union.

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Anonymous posted on

Where's the logic in saying an employer ought to decide how the employees organize for the purpose of bargaining with the employer? That's like saying criminal trials should consist of the prosecution choosing the legal team for the defense.

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Anonymous posted on

I used to work there and I am so glad this finally happened. I was also "let go" after a union vote. If he senses that anyone is up to something they will be dealt with accordingly. It appears as if all of his dirty tricks have caught up with him.

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Anonymous posted on

They were not "illegally fired." They can be fired for any reason one wants. They are at will employees. Spec just likes to sensationalize and be anti establishment.

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Anonymous posted on

If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth, right? the Democrats' great accomplishment is producing the political equivalent of a Rodney King video, clearly demonstrating the lies of the right, the right Hilary Clinton correctly identified as a vast conspiracy. Confirm by examining Central District of California Cases, 01-4340, 03-9097, 08-5515, 10-5193, US Tax Court 12000-07L --though I think you want to view my US Tax Court Appeal to the 9th Circuit for a good account of their day to day assaults, a few month time slice indicative of a decade of assault, and more recently 9th Circuit case 11-56043.

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