Workers at Half Price Books stores in St. Paul and Roseville marched on their bosses Thursday, demanding the bookseller recognize their union.
Afterward, several workers traveled to other Half Price Books locations in the metro, encouraging workers to join the union drive, supported by Local 1189 of the United Food and Commercial Workers and its sister local, Minneapolis-based UFCW Local 663.
Workers said they are joining together to bargain higher wages – currently they earn $12.50 per hour – and gain more say over working conditions that have worsened since stores reopened after pandemic shutdowns.
Laura Peña, who works in the St. Paul store, said management has cut staffing in half, leaving employees to do double the work.
“We take in a lot of books all day, and at first, when there was lower staffing, there was a restriction on how many (books) people could bring in to sell,” Peña said. “Then corporate kept ramping things up, telling us to take in more and more, but it’s not like we had any more staff to back the ramping up.”
Peña said workers also hope to amend a post-pandemic policy that makes all new hires probationary for 90 days, keeping them ineligible for benefits.
For many Half Price Books workers, the pandemic brought into focus both how little regard the company has for their concerns and how unsustainable their jobs have become, said Aaron Kerr, who has 24 years of experience working in Half Price Books stores.
“For years prior, we were really kind of just putting up with it, just accepting this as the way things are,” Kerr said. “And we would see so much turnover. People were saying, ‘I love this job, but I can’t afford to work here.’
“We all love our customers. We love being booksellers, and we want to continue being booksellers. We look forward to negotiating with Half Price Books to make our stores a great place to work and a great place for customers to come into.”
Half Price books calls itself the nation’s largest family-owned retailer for new and used books, and successful organizing drives in Minnesota could give the UFCW a toehold in the chain of over 120 stores.
All 16 booksellers and shift leads at the Roseville store signed union cards, as did an overwhelming majority of employees in the St. Paul store, located in Highland Park.
Kerr and other Roseville employees began considering a union after surviving a round of layoffs that, to them, seemed unnecessary, given the availability of paycheck protection loans.
In May of this year, after the Center for Disease Control changed its masking guidelines, employees in Roseville sent a petition asking the company to hold off on lifting its in-store mask mandates. Half Price Books brushed it aside and lifted the mandate anyway.
“None of us wanted that,” Kerr said. “They lifted it without consulting the employees. They did it at a time when other big companies, like Target, were not.”
Half Price Books executives won’t so easily ignore workers’ petition for a union election. Perhaps by coincidence, the company’s district manager was in Highland Park when workers there marched on the boss, according to Peña.
“We were nervous, but I was glad we all had each other’s backs,” she said.
“We are prepared for the worst,” Kerr said. “But we’re already very organized, getting more organized and making more connections every day.”