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Unionized workers at Moe’s Books staged a picket line with supporters outside the Berkeley bookstore from September 25 to demand better working conditions and better wages.
“It’s really relieving to finally be able to tell people about what’s going on at Moe,” Moe employee Kalie McGuirl said at the rally on Saturday afternoon. “I feel like people have no idea how bad this has been for us.”
McGuirl was one of 10 union workers who stood with a crowd of about two dozen that day. They held up signs, handed out flyers, and spoke to hundreds of customers and those passing by the Berkeley bookstore. An instagram post from the Moe’s Union account called the event an “information picket” and said the goal was not “to hinder business” but “to publicize our terms and garner support from the community for the union “.
The Oakland Post spoke to five different Moe employees. When we asked them why they were protesting, they said they were concerned about what they saw as “anti-union tactics”, low wages and understaffing.
Doris Moskowitz, who took over ownership of Moe’s Books after the death of her father, Morris “Moe” Moskowitz in 1997, denies the allegations. In March, it voluntarily recognized its workers’ demand to form a union with the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as the IWW.
But workers are not happy with the way Moskowitz has interacted with the union. Recently, Moe’s union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Review Commission accusing Moskowitz of offering promotions in an attempt to remove workers from the union.
Workers say one person who received such an offer was Barry Bloom, a 74-year-old Moe’s Books union member who has worked as a book shipper since the late 1990s. Bloom said Moskowitz gave him the gift. opportunity to become the supervisor of the shipping department. But at the time of the offer, Bloom was the only member of that department.
“My immediate reaction was to ask myself ‘who would I be supervising?'” Bloom said. “I saw it almost immediately as an anti-union tactic. “
Union rules state that managers and supervisors cannot be part of the Moe’s Books Union. Bloom wanted to stay in the union, so he declined the offer, which was not accompanied by any proposed salary increase. Since the offer was made, a worker has been assigned the shipping job with Bloom for three hours a week, but Bloom still sees no use in the existence of a shipping department supervisor in the store. .
Moskowitz says his promotional offers to workers have no connection with the union.
“I believe an employer has the right to offer promotions to their employees even when they have a union,” she said. “We have not made any job offers or promotions to encourage an employee to break his support for the union.”
Owen Hill, a Moe’s Books union member who has worked in the store for over 35 years, described the staffing mix as “heavy hitting”. There are currently 13 unionized workers and seven managers, supervisors or owners who are not qualified to be unionized, but many of the managerial and supervisory job titles did not exist before the store’s unionization talks began.
“Who is this management team? Hill said. “Suddenly someone you’ve worked with has that title. It really draws battle lines.
Moskowitz sees it differently and believes that not much has changed.
“Many long-time employees [have been] in supervisory positions although we’ve never called it that because, so far, Moe’s has functioned more as a collective, ”she said. “We didn’t think we needed any job titles before. “
Moe’s Books workers demand higher wages. During the information picket, they spoke to people about their demand that all Moe workers earn at least $ 20 an hour. Kalie McGuirl, who has worked at Moe’s for three years, said her salary of $ 18.50 means she pays 40% of her income in rent even when her two roommates, who are more financially secure, agreed to pay. a higher part of the rent. the costs they share.
She is disturbed that some workers, like Bloom, who have been in the store for decades, still earn less than $ 20 an hour. Currently, unionized Moe employees earn between $ 16.50 and $ 23.50 an hour. Moskowitz negotiated with the union and met with them a dozen times. Although she wouldn’t go into details because she “doesn’t want to be accused of media haggling,” she said she believes “the proposals we are making are competitive, especially in the sales niche in the world. detail that we take care of “.
Moe’s Books employee Noah Ross did not disclose the specific offers the union received while still negotiating, but called the offers the store owner had made so far “almost offensive. And noted that a nearby Mexican restaurant chain, Chipotle, offered wages from $ 18 to $ 18.50.
In response to questions about wages, Moskowitz said the bookstore “was struggling to survive during a global pandemic” and that “like other employers, we have faced many challenges since the start of the in-place shelter.”
Moe’s Books storefront was closed from mid-March to mid-June 2020, and even its online store was closed for a few weeks. Individuals helped the store during this time, donating just over $ 89,000 as part of Moe’s Books’ 2020 GoFundMe Lifeline campaign. The store has been in reduced hours since.
Noah Ross, who counts the money earned from in-person sales during the after-hours shutdown, said despite the reduced hours, he thinks things are going well financially for Moe’s.
“The store is making a ton of money,” Ross said, “probably more than before the pandemic started.”
While only counting in-store numbers, not online sales, Ross said the store regularly fetched between $ 4,000 and $ 6,000 a day and about $ 8,000 a Saturday.
Solomon Wong, who works with the Moe’s Books website, said internet sales are doing well and Moskowitz has sent her emails saying she is happy with the sales figures.
Moskowitz told The Oakland Post that “Internet sales are okay,” but the daily store closure figures Ross claims are incorrect and “do not take into account the considerable expense of running an independent business, especially in the Bay Area. ”Moe’s Books sales figures are impossible to pinpoint. Moskowitz said the store is “a private company that does not publish confidential and proprietary financial information.”
Moe’s Union has called for more workers to be hired and says they are “stretched to the limit” and currently unable to do all the work they would like to do in the store. In a recent Instagram post, they said, “Over the past few months our staff has shrunk by 4 and we have extended our hours of operation… After months of begging management for more help, they didn’t. ‘have only hired one new employee. Moskowitz told The Oakland Post that the store has no plans to hire new workers immediately.
About two months ago, Moskowitz started fundraising again through a GoFundMe campaign from the Moe’s Books General fund. In the fundraising article, she states that “Moe’s Books does not own the [storefront] building… we pay rent and live in the hope that our landlords will let us stay.
It is not known who are the owners Moskowitz refers to. County assessor records show that a trust managed by attorney Peter Lippett owns the Moe’s Books building. Asked about the trust and who the beneficiaries are, Moskowitz said, “I’d rather not discuss the details with you.
In the GoFundMe article, Moskowitz also wrote: “Although I am the beneficiary of the trust that collects the rents, none of the money raised here will go to me or my siblings personally.”
During the information picket, workers said they received mostly positive responses. Although a few people criticized their picketing at a small business, more than 50 people signed and hand-delivered a pre-written letter in support of the union’s demands when they entered the store.
“[Moe’s Books] is part of a larger community and people have gone out of their way to support them, especially during quarantine, ”said Oakland artist Joy Tirade, who spoke to union members on the picket line and said hand-delivered the letter from the union. “So they should take care of the people who represent their store. “
The Oakland Post’s local news coverage in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.