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.”