Building on a radical tradition, workers at Moe’s Books unionize

Workers voted on March 9 to join a union in order to address what they consider a lack of COVID-19 safety controls.

Three union members outside Moe's Books
Three Moe’s workers who helped organize the union drive. From left to right: Noah Ross, Owen Hill, and Kalie McGuirl. Photo: Gus Guerrero

Owen Hill is a crime fiction writer and a poet who’s worked at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue for about 34 years, more than half his life. He’s fourth in seniority among a staff that has curated a collection of books of such high quality that, in 2019, the New York Times named Moe’s “one of America’s very best bookstores.”

“It’s kind of like a cathedral of books and learning,” Hill said of the store. “I’m proud of the place. We have people who come years after they’ve gone to Cal and say ‘We got our education at Moe’s.’”

Doris Moskowitz is even more deeply rooted in Moe’s Books. Her father, Morris (Moe) Moskowitz, a radical arrested many times for protesting World War II, founded the store in 1959 and moved it to Telegraph Avenue three years later, where it was a refuge for demonstrators during the many People’s Park and anti-Vietnam war protests of the late 1960s.

One iconic photo of the era, which the store proudly displays behind its checkout counter, shows a bearded protester on Telegraph Avenue hurling an object on “Bloody Thursday,” when sheriff’s deputies fired buckshot into the crowd, killing one and injuring many. Tear gas billows behind the protester. The Moe’s Books sign is visible behind him.


A protester in front of Moe's Books during demonstrations over People's Park in 1969.
This photo by bil paul, of a protester in front of Moe’s Books during demonstrations over People’s Park in 1969, has become an iconic image. Photo: bil paul/SixtiePix 

Moskowitz started working at the bookstore just after she graduated from Mills College in 1990, and took over as president and store owner after Moe died in 1997. In an interview with Rishabh Chadda published last year, Moskowitz spoke of how her father “put fun into being an intellectual” and that she hopes she and the staff are “keeping Moe’s legacy alive.” Moskowitz also praised her staff stating “they ensure that every book they keep on the shelf is hand-picked and well-curated.”

Although staff and ownership are both deeply committed to the store, which holds more than 200,000 mostly used books on its four floors, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a wedge between them. Moskowitz and her employees differ on how best to ensure worker safety while allowing Moe’s to continue to thrive. The conflict centers largely around store capacity and employment status.

Because of their concerns, the 20 employees of Moe’s voted in early March to affiliate with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union. Moskowitz immediately recognized the union but has mixed feelings about it.

The workers’ “decision to unionize, which I deeply respect from a political perspective, has left me very sad and confused,” Moskowitz wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “My hope is that we will come out of this a more fair and open place where we can all express ourselves and get the help we need to hold Moe’s together.”

Moe’s shifted to curbside pickup only in May 2020. It has since reopened for business. Photo: Pete Rosos

Union representatives and Moskowitz are scheduled to come to the bargaining table for the first time on April 8. To celebrate their unionization and help them get their demands met, union members are hosting a solidarity rally tomorrow, April 3, outside of Moe’s Books at 2 p.m.

Unions at indy bookstores are rare

Unions in independent bookstores are rare, according to Ann Seaton, operations director of the California Independent Booksellers Alliance, who could only list a few. They include Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon and Strand Books in New York, which has been unionized since the 1970s..

Recently, a few more bookstores have unionized, largely in response to the conditions related to COVID-19. On Feb. 5, Bookshop Santa Cruz employees voted to unionize, citing coronavirus concerns related to the labor conditions. In late March 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to intensify in the United States, workers with the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle unionized. “We decided it was essential, entering this moment of economic uncertainty, to be organized, have a voice, and have a seat at the table with management in order to work together, ” Elliot Bay worker and union co-founder Jacob Schear told Publisher’s Weekly in September.

Although Moe’s union members are discussing further demands, right now they’re focused on job security and safety related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moe’s workers have considered unionizing in the past, but the pandemic pushed them to finally do it.

“We want to keep people safe and we don’t want to get fired,” said Hill. “We’re trying to build on that.”

Store capacity has been central to worker’s demands. California’s tier-based vaccine rollout has not specifically prioritized retail workers and the majority of Moe’s union members are not yet fully vaccinated. They fear getting and spreading the virus. They want to keep the store’s capacity at a level lower than what Moskowitz wants.

“It has definitely had a measured impact on my mental health,” said Kalie McGuirl about working with customers during the pandemic. She’s worked at Moe’s Books for almost three years and, until the pandemic hit, considered it a dream job. “It’s wearing and you’re always on edge.”

Since December, Moe’s capacity limit has changed six times. In early December, while the store was in the purple tier, the state’s most restrictive tier, the store capacity was set at 14. Moskowitz changed the capacity to 30 on Dec. 15. On Dec.21, workers threatened to walk out if the capacity wasn’t lowered. Moskowitz then reduced the store capacity to 15 and the store remained open.

On Feb. 15, Moskowitz raised the capacity to 20 patrons at a time. On March 2, workers informed Moskowitz they planned to form a union. On March 3, the same day Berkeley entered into the red tier, Moskowitz announced capacity would be raised to 25. On March 14, workers asked that, until formal negotiations begin on April 8, the capacity remains unchanged. Moskowitz responded by saying that capacity would be raised to 40 on April 2, but later changed the capacity to 33 after the bookstore’s lawyer met with an IWW representative. On March 30, Berkeley entered into the orange tier.

Owner has followed local regulations

Moe and Doris Moskowitz at her 1990 graduation from Mills Colleg
Moe and Doris Moskowitz at her 1990 graduation from Mills College. Photo: Doris Moskowitz

Moskowitz has consistently followed Berkeley’s laws related to COVID-19 safety and capacity. The limits she imposed have been far less than what has been required. Based on square footage, Moe’s has a capacity of 166 people. When in the purple tier from December to early March, Moskowitz was legally allowed to have about 40 people in Moe’s. The red tier allowed her to have 80 people. Now, in the orange tier, she’s legally allowed to fill the store to capacity.

Although workers concede that Moskowitz has followed Berkeley’s laws, they feel that the way the store is set up and how customers use the space requires that a much lower capacity be enforced. People mostly gather, and sometimes bunch together, in the basement and on the second floor. Bookshelves take up much of the space, causing people to bunch together and making it hard for workers to see customers.

Moe’s workers often have to remind customers to put their masks over their noses, keep their masks on when they talk on the phone and go outside if they have to blow their noses. When more customers are in the large store, it’s hard for workers to keep track of whether people are following mask protocols, they said.

In an email to Berkeleyside Moskowitz wrote that since the store is massive, she feels the capacity limits she’s enforced are safe and that lower capacity limits would hurt Moe’s sales, which have taken a big hit since the pandemic started.

“Sales are terrible,” she wrote. “Improving as people come out to see us, but dire, over 40% down for more than a year.”

Last year, Moskowitz launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $100,000 to offset the losses from the pandemic. The money is to be distributed between the workers and the store;  it has raised $83,000 to date.

To keep afloat, Moskowitz said Moe’s staff needs to work more hours to keep the store open or raise the capacity limit to allow more people to shop in the store. “Moe’s needs more staff willing to work more hours so that we can be open for longer or have more people in the store when we are open,” she said.

Moe’s has been open for six hours a day, down from its usual 12 hours a day schedule. Of its 20 union members, 12 are doing public-facing work, four are working in offices at Moe’s, and four are doing work from home or are going to the store before it opens. Three of these four workers live with immunocompromised people or are at risk due to age but plan to come back when they are fully vaccinated, which will likely be by the end of this month. One worker says their work doesn’t necessitate coming into the store.

Hill shows up at 7 a.m. before the store opens at least four days a week to help and continue to curate Moe’s massive collection. He avoids being in the store when it’s open because his age puts him at a higher risk for catching the coronavirus.

“We’re anxious to do the work and we’re doing everything we can,” said Hill of himself and other workers who don’t yet feel safe doing public-facing work.

“We’re really about keeping the store in business and helping it to thrive by allowing workers to thrive,” said Noah Ross, who has worked at Moe’s for four years.

But members of Moe’s union think that expanding the store capacity won’t improve sales.

“Our main concerns are not things that will cost the store money,” said McGuirl. “We rarely have a line and when we do, people are happy to wait.”

Moe’s workers have also asked for protections against getting fired that exceed what California law requires. They have not been granted that protection so far. In an email sent on March 14, Moe’s Books’ employees asked that until initial formal negotiations could be completed, they be considered just cause employees instead of at-will employees. Under at-will employment, they can be fired for any reason or no reason, other than reasons based on legally protected classes. As just cause employees, they could only be fired for misconduct or another event relevant to employment. In their email request, they wrote “This will ensure that workers are able to negotiate with management without fearing retaliation.”

Moskowitz has not yet offered employees this protected status in advance of their initial labor negotiations on April 8. She told Berkeleyside i “The representatives from IWW and our labor attorney will help figure this out.”

Bruce Valde, an organizer for IWW who is working with Moe’s, said that Moskowitz was under no legal obligation to grant a change in employment status to workers as California is classified as an at-will employment state. She could have chosen to do so, however, by entering into a collective bargaining agreement with the workers that stipulated the change in employment status, he said. The union plans to ask for the change in employment status again when they negotiate on April 8.

Moe’s workers feel that they have already been retaliated against, as one worker has lost six hours, or a current full working day, of employment since Moe’s union was formed. When asked about the cut hours, Moskowitz said there was no “unlawful action, but I expect this will be a discussion topic in upcoming bargaining.”

Although Moskowitz and the union are facing tensions related to capacity limits and employment status, they share a love and concern for Moe’s. They want it to thrive and continue during and well beyond the pandemic.

“We have been struggling,” wrote Moskowitz. “Until very recently, it seemed the store was empty most of the time. Having people in the store again feels good to me.”

The union is explicitly not calling for a boycott.

“This is about making the store the best store it can be,” said Ross. “The way to support our union best is to go to Moe’s, show your support, and buy a book.”