Joining a nationwide rise in labor action, workers at Petaluma’s beloved Copperfield’s Books store are attempting to unionize.
On Saturday, March 11, members of the Copperfield’s Books Petaluma Union gathered under the downtown store’s awning to announce the campaign to a few dozen supporters.
A series of speakers highlighted their main concerns, including low wages, minimal paid time off, inadequate healthcare benefits and a lack of clarity about how workers should respond when customers are racist, homophobic or transphobic to employees. Union members stressed that they want to help preserve Copperfield’s as a community resource.
“I love Copperfield’s. My coworkers love Copperfield’s. We just want them to love us back,” one worker said to the crowd.
Robert Glover, a seven-year Copperfield’s employee, who introduced the idea of joining the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to his colleagues, hopes that unionizing will help the store retain experienced employees with knowledge of customers’ interests and preferences.
“One of the big reasons for unionizing for me was creating a stable environment. I had seen so many good people with decades of industry knowledge leave Copperfield’s because they could no longer afford to work there, because the pay was too low for the area,” Glover said.
Currently most workers are paid the minimum wage, $17.06 per hour in Petaluma, Glover said.
A full-time worker at that rate would make $34,120 a year, qualifying them for low-income, subsidized housing.
Even employees with decades of experience are paid only slightly more. Ellen Skagerberg, a 32-year employee, said she is paid $18 per hour. Ultimately, the lack of meaningful raises may have contributed to solidarity among workers.
“People who were there for six weeks, six months or six years, we’re all making minimum wage, and the six-year people were training the six-week people,” Skagerberg said.
Glover said that the union has support from almost all of the 21 part- and full-time employees at the Petaluma store. The union is not currently interested in organizing any of Copperfield’s eight other stores spread through Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties, according to Glover.
Three days before the public event, two workers from the Petaluma store delivered a letter to management at Copperfield’s headquarters in Sebastopol, requesting that the company voluntarily recognize the union. The company’s owners have declined to do so.
In an emailed response to questions last week, Cooperfield’s co-owner, Paul Jaffe, stated that a formal election with the National Labor Relations Board will give “everyone time to get more clarity on the issue and then have an election where everyone can feel safe in expressing their choice… under no duress or micro aggression.” Since the union announced its campaign, the company has begun a series of conversations with workers at multiple locations, including the Petaluma store, according to Jaffe.
Jaffe acknowledged many of the union’s concerns, but argued the company is constrained in what it can do.
“I do agree the issue of wages that haven’t kept up with rising costs is one that needs to be addressed, not only for Copperfield’s Books, but for most businesses these days,” Jaffe stated.
“There are longer term employees that have not had their wages raised proportionally, and I believe this to be one of the main issues for some of the staff in Petaluma and Copperfield’s Books as a company. I agree with them and do feel that ownership at Copperfield’s could have done a better job of addressing their needs. But at the same time, we are a unique small business with some of the smallest margins of any business, that also has to compete directly with the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and we have limits to the amount of raises we can give to all our people,” he continued.
Jaffe added that Copperfield’s has been family-run for 42 years and claimed that management has always been open to listening to concerns, even if they can’t always fix the issues raised immediately. Jaffe expressed regret that none of the “disaffected employees at the Petaluma store” reached out with their concerns before launching their union campaign so that some “misconceptions could have been discussed and perhaps cleared.”
Citing the stresses that the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation have caused over the past few years, Jaffe concluded “this is not an excuse, and we can always try and do better, but the ownership of Copperfield’s feels that the timing of this union effort is not the best or most efficient way for our business to operate….but we will leave that decision to the employees and honor the outcome.”
Copperfield’s workers are not alone in organizing. In California, the list of recently-unionized stores includes Moe’s Books in Berkeley, Bookshop Santa Cruz and Book Soup in Los Angeles. Workers at a few other stores, including Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, and Green Apple Books in San Francisco, have been unionized for decades.
In an interview, Glover said that workers had informally discussed unionizing for years, but working conditions during the pandemic and learning about the IWW’s Moe’s Books union effort ultimately inspired the campaign.
“The people I made contact with at the IWW were also book people, so they knew what we were going through and they understood our complaints completely,” Glover said.
Skagerberg, 63, highlighted the role of her younger co-workers in powering the union campaign. While many older Copperfield’s workers had resigned themselves to subsidizing their bookstore wages with a spouse’s income and healthcare benefits or simply leaving the company for a more lucrative industry once the pay became unsustainable, she’s noticed younger employees tend to look out for each other.
“They’re always checking in with each other; they’re all kind to each other. They’ll say, ‘If you’re overwhelmed, ask somebody else for help. You don’t have to do it all,’” Skagerberg said. “It’s a very connected generation.”
The generational dynamic is present across the nationwide surge in labor activity, according to John Logan, a labor history professor at San Francisco State University, who has been following the Starbucks union campaign closely.
Over the past several decades, service and retail jobs have become a larger portion of the American economy. Now, workers at retail stores, nonprofits, museums, bookstores and other similar businesses are unionizing at an increased rate.
“If you look at the kinds of workers who are most involved in union organizing campaigns right now, they tend to be sort of younger workers, often workers with college degrees or some college education, who are nonetheless working often in low wage service sector jobs,” Logan said.
Thanks for bringing our unionization efforts to the public eye, in the larger context of worker conditions and changing expectations in general. The article was accurate and fair, and it conveyed our concerns very well. After the National Labor Relations Board oversees a formal vote and our union is recognized by Copperfield’s management, we’ll enter into good-faith negotiations with Copperfield’s Books, for the ultimate benefit of us all. Thanks again!