barns and noble

Barnes & Noble Workers Organizing Union Drive For The Largest Bookstore Chain In The US 

Workers at Barnes & Noble, the largest bookstore chain in the US, are preparing for a nationwide union drive after six outlet stores voted to organize throughout the past year, according to reports

According to the workers, who are demanding better pay and working conditions, “many more” stores will move to unionize.

Locations that already have unionized have made multiple claims that management has delayed attempting contract negotiations, and James Daunt, the CEO, allegedly went on a months-long campaign to encourage employees not to vote in favor of organizing. 

“He would come in and essentially try to talk us out of unionizing. The big argument against us unionizing was it would make his life harder, which he would repeat several times. It wasn’t very successful,” said Jessica Sepple, a worker at Barnes & Noble’s flagship New York City store in Union Square.

Daunt disputed the claims of negotiating delays, and stated he agreed with the workers on “the fundamentals” of their demands while warning of “potential upsides and downsides to a union.”

Embed from Getty Images

The store voted 76-2 in favor of unionizing last summer. Barnes & Noble has around 600 stores across the US. The business itself has been on a decline in recent years, and Daunt, who became CEO in 2019, has said he’s worked hard to turn around the business. 

Sepple said that their “purpose for unionizing is to get some recognition for the dignity of workers, and having sat at the table and currently in negotiations with Barnes & Noble, it is disappointing that Barnes & Noble has not treated this as if that dignity is deserved.”

Sepple also discussed that workers at the Union Square location have experienced lagging wages, safety concerns with ladders and general book storage, aggressive customers, and being given duties that the job initially did not entail, according to The Guardian

“If you’re good at your job, you’re just going to get more work. It takes a lot of knowledge, research, and a love of reading and books to make it happen, and oftentimes I’ve found the company tends to coast on that.”

In Brooklyn’s Park Slope, workers won a union election in July 2023. Sydul Akhanji, a worker at the store for two years, said he wants to work for the bookstore chain for a long time, but the low pay has been a major downside. He stated “if the company wants to build itself around knowledgeable booksellers, its workers need to be able to afford rent and food.”

Akhanji also alleged that Daunt attempted to deter the workers at Park Slope from unionizing. He claimed that the CEO “just went on and on about how it’d be hard and make all his plans complicated, if we unionized, and how he has a vision for us, so please, just don’t unionize right now.”

Embed from Getty Images

Workers have also claimed that all contract negotiations are slowed down because executives are sending them to their company lawyers, who are typically not present during the discussions and negotiations. In some of the New York stores, management has been negotiating separately from the workers as well. 

“We live in the most expensive city in the country, and our starting wage until very recently was minimum wage, and it’s just not sustainable,” Esther Rosenfield, a barista at the Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, said.

Barnes & Noble workers in Bloomington, Illinois heard about the union voting in New York and decided to hold their own. In November, they unanimously voted to unionize. 

“James Daunt did a conference call to the store himself saying a vote for the union is a vote against him. The issues we’re facing are companywide. We’re all facing the same issues. If one small store in the midwest can unionize, then anyone can,” said senior bookseller, Zane Crockett.

Daunt stated: 

“My argument to the booksellers has been very simple: we have no disagreement with the fundamentals of what is being asked for, and indeed have pivoted the company precisely to achieve them. Only a successful business, after all, can deliver the investments necessary to improve pay and the physical condition of our stores.”

“In this endeavor, I see both potential upsides and downsides to the addition of a union. The most obvious potential upside is to have a clearer articulation of bookseller aspirations. Equally, there are potential downsides, notably if it causes unnecessary confrontation between ‘management’ and ‘workers’ and the fact that low-paid booksellers will have to pay significant dues to the union, all other things being equal reducing their pay.”