In November, the Industrial Workers of the World’s Moe’s Books Union in Berkeley, California voted to ratify their first union contract and reach a tentative agreement with management. This hard-fought success was won in spite of many attempts by management to divide and discourage the organizing workers, who celebrated their first year as members of the IWW in late February.
As the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading and workers across the world scrambled to enact measures to keep themselves safe, those at Moe’s Books were doing the same.
“The management was just not listening to us,” says Owen Hill, a founding member of Moe’s Books Union. “And we’re on the floor. We know what to do.”
Increasingly frustrated with management’s resistance, Moe’s Books workers chose to unionize early last year and quickly sought an emergency measure outlining safety protocols. In March of 2021, the union was voluntarily recognized by Moe’s Books owner, Doris Moskowitz.
However, as contract negotiations began, management attempted to undermine the process by offering management positions to workers, which could have removed them from the union. At least one recent hire was also fired, spurring the union to file an Unfair Labor Practices complaint against management with the National Labor Relations Board. The board eventually ruled in favor of the union, acknowledging that management spoke illegally about the union and mandating compensation to the fired employee.
The union contract that was agreed upon in late November gives Moe’s Books’ workers a starting wage of $20 per hour, 3 percent annual raises and additional raises that vary by responsibility, as well as dental coverage and more holidays. Also codified was a grievance procedure — the need for which was one of the original inspirations for unionizing, as workers had been fired without cause at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Hill, no one has been fired since implementation of the contract.
In the months following ratification, the importance of the union has only been further confirmed. At the end of December, when a worker was forced into a meeting with management, Hill — the shop steward at the time — showed up alongside a representative from the IWW, but they were initially barred from attending. After some negotiations, a second meeting was held, which both were invited to join.
An employee of Moe’s Books for 35 years, Hill has since retired, but has applied to be a delegate so that he can continue to support the union. The store has recently experienced a lot of turnover, but the new hires are “ very pro-union,” according to Hill.
“I think that’s discouraging to management,” he says. “They can’t seem to find anyone in Berkeley who’s anti-union.”
The current union contract will last for three years, at which time Hill is hopeful that the new generation taking the reins will continue to improve working conditions at Moe’s Books. He also shares that same hope for union organizing in other workplaces.
“We’re seeing some changes here with this wave of labor politics,” says Hill. “It sure feels good that, in an awful world, there’s some positive things going on.”