Maybe it’s the fact that the NLRB is currently tallying votes for the biggest Amazon unionization drive yet. Maybe it’s the fact that Biden claims to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” Maybe it’s the pandemic, pushing economic inequality and worker safety and security in stark relief.
Whatever the cause, unions are more popular today than they’ve been in decades, with 65 percent of Americans approving of labor unions, according to a fall Gallup poll. Just in the last six months, local workforces ranging from Stiiizy budtenders in the Mission to that of Google and Medium have unionized. The most well-known unionization efforts have been in tech.
As of March 9, however, a new union was formed in Berkeley that outsiders might not have seen coming. The workers of Moe’s Books, a bookstore in Berkeley best known for its radically leftist history, have joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe’s Books and daughter of the original owner, Moe Moskowitz, for whom the shop is named, voluntarily recognized the union. The workers will be holding a rally outside the store on Saturday, April 3 at 2 p.m.
Workers say the union was formed after their concerns about health and safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic were ignored and some workers faced retaliation. “Frontline staff felt unsafe in that safety protocols were being changed without their consent, and without their knowledge,” says Noah Ross, a book buyer at Moe’s who is also part of the workers’ organizing committee. “They would just walk into work and discover that protocols have changed.”
Most of the tensions revolve around a check-in station, where an employee has been stationed, sitting behind a folded table outside the store’s doors, for most of the pandemic. Upon entering Moe’s, this worker checks that each customer wears a mask and sanitizes their hands (because who doesn’t flip through more books than they buy when visiting a bookstore?). They also monitor store capacity. But management has tried to remove this check-in station or move it inside the doors on multiple occasions, causing workers to worry they’ll have less power to enforce COVID protocols and that employees hired for this position will be abruptly let go. Since management recognized the union, they still moved the station inside once and reduced the hours of two front door checkers — an example worker organizers reference as evidence that management is not empathetic to their concerns. But when asked about the union on Friday afternoon, Doris Moskowitz replied that “if the employees want it, it’s probably good for Moe’s.”
In comparison to other unions formed recently, this is the first to spring from one of the Bay Area’s iconic landmarks of ’60s-era counterculture. Moe Moskowitz opened the store at the height of the Beatnik era in 1959 with his wife Barbara, and quickly became known for his proclivity toward agitation. He helped finance the band who sang the Vietnam-war anthem “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag” at Woodstock, and sheltered demonstrators in his store during Berkeley’s anti-war protests. But protestors warn the community to not take the store’s radical history for granted.
“I think that my boss has used that legacy in order to bring in business, and bring in business in a way that has obscured the actual issues,” says Kalie McGuirl, another worker on the organizing committee. “But the actual legacy of Moe, and the things he did at the bookstore definitely trickled down — and I think that’s a large part of why Moe’s was able to unionize so effectively, why we were so unanimous in this.”