Rough Pages Ahead: Navigating the Literary World's Labor Woes

From Crummy Pay to Empty Bookshelves: How We Can Rewrite the Future

Wilbur Greene
Sep 7, 2023
3 min read

The world of literature is hitting a few speed bumps, to put it mildly. Between crummy pay, not-so-great working conditions, and the ghost of unionization hanging overhead, it's no wonder the industry's future looks a tad gloomy. Toss in the surge of self-publishing and the waning of our beloved brick-and-mortar book-stores, and the road gets even rockier for those trying to make a living in the literary world.

On September 5, 2023, Labor Day saw a wave of protest at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, as hundreds of its employees stood in unison against the prolonged contract disagreements between their union, ILWU Local 5, and the book-store's management. With the old contract expiring back in June, a consensus on a new one remains elusive. The heart of the dispute? Wages. Many employees claim their pay, starting at $16.25 an hour, lags behind the area's liveable wage of $21.85. Though Powell's has proposed a wage hike, the figures don't seem to appease the union. Additionally, Powell's health insurance offerings have come under scrutiny for being pricey and insufficient. As a result of the strike, Powell's had to pull down the shutters of its three Portland stores. This unrest at one of America's premier independent book-stores, a tourist magnet, suggests potential business repercussions. This event isn't isolated; it's emblematic of a broader sentiment of labor discontent sweeping across the U.S., evident from strikes at giants like Amazon and Starbucks.

On the heels of the protest at Powell's Books, another major book-store faced employee unrest. On August 25, 2023, Barnes & Noble in Hadley, Massachusetts became the stage for a pointed demonstration. Between 2 pm to 5 pm, the store's unionized staff, under the banner of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459, walked out, decrying chronic understaffing—a concern so grave they felt compelled to file an Unfair Labor Practice complaint. With a mere 18 members in their union, the employees voiced their distress over mounting work pressures and the store's dwindling safety due to insufficient monitoring.

As they took a stand, they weren't alone. Other labor unions and community entities rallied behind them, showing solidarity. The echoes of their demands were loud and clear: ramp up staffing to ease the work pressure, enhance training protocols focusing on safety and customer service, overhaul the health insurance plan, and let employees have a more pronounced voice in the store's daily operations.

This incident, marking the first-ever walkout by unionized Barnes & Noble personnel, amplifies the undercurrents of dissatisfaction rippling through the retail sector. As with Powell's, workers here too are clamouring for improved conditions and better pay.

In observing the recent wave of protests and walkouts, it's evident that there's a seismic shift occurring within the retail and literary sectors. Workers are increasingly aware of their rights and are no longer willing to settle for less than they deserve. This collective consciousness, while sparked by specific grievances like wages and working conditions, seems to be part of a broader global movement advocating for workers' rights and dignified labor.

In my opinion, the trend is not just a passing phase but a genuine call for systemic change. As more workers rally together, their collective voice becomes harder for corporations to ignore. There's an old adage that says, "where there's smoke, there's fire." These protests might very well be the smoke signals heralding a transformative era in labor relations.

Looking ahead, I foresee two potential paths. One, companies might adopt a more proactive stance, re-evaluating their policies and ensuring that they are both fair and competitive. This would not only appease the current workforce but also attract future talent. Alternatively, if businesses resist change, these protests might intensify, possibly leading to prolonged strikes, significant business disruptions, and even legislative interventions.

The ball, in many ways, is in the court of these major corporations. Their next moves will not only determine their own futures but also shape the trajectory of labor rights in the 21st century.

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