January 3, 2024

Labyrinth Books Workers Plan to Unionize

By Donald Gilpin

Workers at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street have announced their intention to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), “joining a movement of bookstore workers fighting to improve standards across the industry,” according to a RWDSU post on X (formerly Twitter).

“Unionization and collective bargaining will create a better future for this bookstore,” said Rebecca Ziemann, a Labyrinth employee and a leader of the unionization effort, in a speech delivered on December 21 in the bookstore and posted in a video on X and Facebook. “To make Labyrinth the best that it can be we want to make sure that all of our voices are heard.”

The audience of employees, most wearing red T-shirts bearing the RWDSU logo, listened intently and cheered loudly as she spoke. “We care about the outcomes and decisions made in this store and therefore we the workers want a seat at the table,” she said. “We want decisions that affect all of us to be transparent. We want to ensure that when we bring concerns to management they will be taken seriously and addressed promptly. All of that means unionization.”

In a January 2 phone conversation, Maria DiPasquale, a communications associate representing RWDSU, noted that the Labyrinth workers have been in communication with RWDSU for several months and have requested voluntary recognition by their employers. If recognition is not voluntarily granted they will proceed to a vote, which requires a simple majority to approve a union. After a positive vote they would elect a bargaining committee and proceed to collective bargaining.

“They are focusing on how best to have a seat at the table,” said DiPasquale. “The workers have expertise and they want a say in how Labyrinth is run, making it the best it can be for themselves, for the customers, and for the community they serve.”

One of the issues of concern at Labyrinth, according to DiPasquale, is an inconsistency and lack of transparency about wages and pay increases. “There is not a clear link between what workers are doing and how they’re compensated,” she said.

Sam Prentice, who has been an employee at Labyrinth for about a year, emphasized the high turnover rate among Labyrinth workers. “Employees are constantly coming and going,” he said. “It does not seem like a job you could afford to do for very long.”

Prentice went on to note the rising cost of living in the area, claiming that “wages have not kept pace. Labyrinth does not pay a livable wage.” He also noted a lack of transparency and clarity in pay levels. “The system for determining wages is unclear,” he said. “There is no policy that anyone knows about. Pay increases are handed out haphazardly. Raises are very irregular and at the whim of management.”

Prentice said that he anticipates that an overwhelming majority of the 19 Labyrinth workers will vote in favor of unionization. He stated that unionization could help make Labyrinth a better bookstore that “better understands its customers and the books they’re looking for.”  He added that in the era of Amazon online book sales “having a motivated, engaged staff that’s well-read and cares about books is more important than ever. Unionization will make Labyrinth a better place to buy books.”

In a January 1 email, Labyrinth owners Dorothea von Moltke, Cliff Simms, and Peter Simms stated that they would support the results of an employee vote overseen by the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission. “As owners of Labyrinth, we recognize the intention of our employees to unionize,” they wrote. “We will, of course, recognize our employees’ choice. If a majority of our employees vote in favor of unionization, we will bargain in good faith for all of our employees and expect to reach a fair and acceptable contract.”

Labyrinth and the union are still working on an agreement as to which workers will be eligible to vote, after which a date will be set for the election.

DiPasquale pointed out that RWDSU has worked with four Barnes & Noble bookstores to unionize over the past year, including the Rutgers University Bookstore, the first bookstore in New Jersey to unionize. “The union has a long history of helping independent bookstores in New York City to unionize,” she said. “This is part of a larger wave of retail workers taking power, at Starbucks, REI, and other organizations.”

Explaining the Labyrinth workers’ need to unionize, Ziemann stated, “Many of us have spent long nights hearing our colleagues, sharing our desire to be treated with dignity, respect, and transparency. I truly feel lucky to be a member of the community here. To be a member of the Labyrinth staff is to be surrounded by intelligent, passionate, and diligent workers dedicated to bettering the world around them.”