On November 22, 2021 workers at Berkeley, CA’s iconic Moe’s Books voted to ratify their first union contract after reaching a Tentative Agreement with management the previous week. Since its founding in early 2021, the Industrial Workers of the World Moe’s Books Union has continuously pushed for better working conditions, pay, and benefits.
The battle for a safer, more democratic workplace has been hard-fought, with workers resisting attempts by the company to divide them. The company apparently sought to undermine union organizing by offering management positions to workers—effectively raiding the bargaining unit, which is already top-heavy. Compelled by a sense of resolve and internal solidarity, workers have refused these attempts at bribery—favoring, instead, the power that comes when workers stand together. Reflecting on the apparent militant solidarity that has held the workers together, Shop Steward Own Hill states, “I think this is partly because the time is right, and workers everywhere are organizing and fighting back. This is especially true for book workers. Several stores have organized this year.” Workers at the bookstore seem proud to belong to the current rise in rank-and-file union organizing and see their fight as belonging to a larger struggle.
Perhaps the most contentious issue between the bosses and workers has been the implementation of adequate precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Workers are demanding a larger workforce to handle the proposed safety measures and to achieve a fairer balance between management and workers. Management currently accounts for the majority of employees, and at least one recent hire was fired shortly after being warned against supporting the union. In response, workers have filed a complaint of Unfair Labor Practices that is currently pending. While management has been reluctant to meet safety protocol demands, workers are hopeful that their ongoing collective vigilance can assure their well-being and the well-being of customers. According to Hill, “We insisted on a set of covid precautions, and after much back-and-forth the company agreed to an emergency proposal that theoretically gave the union power over safety precautions. The company has pushed back at times, attempting to loosen standards, but for the most part we have maintained worker and customer safety. This is a constant battle.”
Their new contract includes a starting wage of $20/hr., dental insurance, and increased holidays—including May Day. also known as the International Workers’ Day. “The union was absolutely necessary to bring about these changes. Things were going in the opposite direction when we organized. Owners were consolidating their power and intimidating workers. We were approaching a toxic workplace—if we weren’t already there,” says Hill. It is the hope of Hill and the other workers that the Union can radically change worker-management dynamics. The gains already won by their new contract are a cause for celebration and a source of inspiration for the ongoing struggle for workers’ power.