Moe’s Books Union and Supporters Picket Store

Workers in Moe’s Books union accuse ownership of union busting and are asking for higher wages while the store’s owner denies the accusation and says the business is struggling to survive.

Unionized Moe’s Books workers, IWW members, and supporters stand together near Moe’s Books in Berkeley on Saturday September 26. Photo by Zack Haber.

Unionized Moe’s Books workers picketed with supporters outside the Berkeley bookstore from 2 to 5 pm on Saturday to demand better working conditions and pay.

“It feels really relieving to be finally talking to people about what’s been going on at Moe’s,” said Moe’s worker Kalie McGuirl at the rally.

McGuirl was one of ten unionized workers who stood with a crowd of about two dozen people that day. They held signs, handed out flyers, and talked to hundreds of customers and those passing by the Berkeley bookstore. An instagram post from the Moe’s Union account called the event an “informational picket” and claimed the aim was not “impeding business” but “to spread the word about our conditions, and gather community support for the union.”

I spoke to five different Moe’s workers who claimed they were concerned about what they saw as “union busting tactics,” low wages, and understaffing.

Doris Moskowitz, who took over ownership of Moe’s Books after her father, Morris “Moe” Moskowitz past away in 1997, denies the claims. In March, she voluntarily recognized her workers’ request to form a union with the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as the IWW.

But workers have not been happy with how Doris Moskowitz has interacted with the union. Recently, they filed an Unfair Labor Practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board through the IWW accusing Moskowitz of offering promotions with the goal of removing 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 90s. Bloom said Moskowitz offered him the 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 wonder ‘who would I be supervising?’” Bloom said. “I pretty much instantly saw it as a union busting 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 did not come with any proposed salary increase. Since the offer was proposed, a worker has been assigned to do shipping work with Bloom for three hours a week, but Bloom still sees no good purpose to the existence of a shipping department supervisor at the store.

Moskowitz claims her offers of promotions to workers have been unrelated to the union.

“I believe an employer has the right to offer promotions to its employees even when they have a union,” she said. “We have not made any job offer or offers of promotions in order to encourage any employee to break from their support of the union.”

Owen Hill, a Moe’s Books union member who has been worked at the store for over 35 years, described the staff makeup as “top heavy.” There are currently 13 unionized workers and seven managers, supervisors, or owners who are not qualified to be in the union, but many of the managerial and supervisory job titles did not exist until talks of the store unionizing began.

“Who is this management team?,” said Hill. “Suddenly someone you’ve been working with has this title. It really draws battle lines.”

Moskowitz sees it differently and thinks little has changed.

“Many long term employees [have been] in supervisor positions even though we never called it that because, up until now, Moe’s has functioned as more of a collective,” she said. “We didn’t think we needed job titles before.”

Moe’s Books workers are asking for higher wages. At the informational picket, they talked to people about their demand that all Moe’s workers make at least 20$ an hour. Kalie McGuirl, who has worked at Moe’s for three years, said her salary of 18.50$ means that she pays 40% of her income on rent even when her two roommates, who are more financially secure, have agreed to pay a higher portion of the rent costs they share. She is disturbed that some workers, like Bloom, who have been at the store for decades, still make less than 20$ an hour. Currently, unionized Moe’s employees make between 16.50$ and 23.50$ an hour.

Moskowitz has been negotiating with the union and has met with them about a dozen times. Although she would not talk specifics because she does not “want to be accused of bargaining through the media,” she said she believes “the proposals we are making are competitive, especially in the retail niche that we occupy.”

Moe’s Books worker Noah Ross would not reveal specific offers the union had received while they are still bargaining, but characterized offers the store had proposed so far as “almost offensive,” and noted that a nearby chain Mexican restaurant, Chipotle, has been offering starting wages of 18$ to 18.50$.

In response to questions about wages, Moskowitz said the bookstore has been “struggling to survive during a global pandemic,” and that “like other employers, we have faced many challenges since the beginning of shelter-in-place.” Moe’s Books storefront was closed from mid-March to mid-June of 2020, and even its online store was closed for a few weeks. Individuals helped the store during this time, donating just over 89,000$ through the Moe’s Books 2020 Lifeline GoFundMe campaign. Since then, the store has been open at reduced hours.

Noah Ross, who counts money made through in person sales during closeout after workdays, said that 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 it did before the pandemic started.”

While only counting in-store figures, not online sales, Ross said the store regularly pulls in 4,000$-6,000$ on an average day, and around 8,000$ on an average Saturday. Solomon Wong, who works with the Moe’s Books website, said internet sales are doing great, and that Moskowitz has sent him emails indicating she is happy with the sale numbers.

Moskowitz told me that “internet sales are ok,” but that the daily in-store closeout numbers Ross is claiming are incorrect and “don’t take into account the considerable expense of running an independent business, especially in the Bay Area.” Moe’s Books’ sale figures are impossible to know precisely. Moskowitz said the store is “a private company that does not publish confidential and proprietary financial information.”

Moe’s Union has called on more workers to be hired and claim they are “stretched thin” and unable to currently do all the work they would like to do in the store. In a recent instagram post, they stated “In the past few months, our staff has shrunk by 4, and we’ve extended our business hours…After months of begging management for more help, they have hired just one new employee.” Moskowitz said the store has no immediate plans to hire new workers.

Starting about two months ago, Moskowitz began again raising money through a Moe’s Books General fund GoFundMe campaign. In the fundraiser’s write up, she states “Moe’s Books does not own the [storefront] building…we pay rent and live with the hope that our landlords let us stay.”

It is unclear who the landlords are that Moskowitz refers to. County Accessor records show that a trust managed by the lawyer Peter Lippett owns the Moe’s Books building. When asked about the trust and who the beneficiaries are, Moskowitz stated “I would prefer not to discuss the details with you.”

In the GoFundMe write up, Moskowitz also wrote, “Although I am a beneficiary of the trust that collects rent, none of the money collected here will go to me or my siblings personally.”

At the informational picket, workers said they received mostly positive responses. Although a few people criticized their picketing a small business, more than 50 people signed and hand delivered a pre-written letter in support of the union’s demands as 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 based artist joy tirade, who talked to union members at the picket and hand delivered the union letter. “So they should take care of the people that represent their store.”

Note: A similar version of this story will appear soon in the print edition of The Berkeley Post and on the Post News Group’s website.