Bookstore Owner Backs Down from Union Standoff

by Molly Wharton

The owners of an independent bookstore in New York City have re-hired four employees who had been fired after voting in favor of unionizing, according to the New York Times. 

Chris Doeblin, the co-owner of the Morningside Heights shop Book Culture, had angered labor activists when he opposed attempts by his employees to unionize. On June 26, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union won an election with almost unanimous support from the bookstore’s employees. Two who had voted to unionize were fired that day, and three were let go two days later. 

Under federal law, firing an employee for voting to unionize is illegal. But Doeblin said that four of these workers were managers, and therefore not eligible to be part of the union. “We ask that all of our managers support management and fulfill the directives that they are given,” he told the Huffington Post. The workers, however, countered that they were managers “in name only.”

The fifth worker, he said, was fired for eavesdropping.  

Doeblin describes himself as “an extremely progressive liberal and the best kind.” He told the Times, “I’ve been able to keep a community bookstore alive in this neighborhood, and I don’t let ideology get in my way.”

After the controversial firing, the store’s remaining employees went on strike. Along with other union representatives, they picketed his stores and placed giant inflatable rats on the sidewalks, which are used to shame businesses that employ non-union labor. They also encouraged residents to join in a boycott, spreading the word through community e-mail lists and social-media outlets. Sales at Doeblin’s store suffered drastically.

“I was, frankly, appalled,” Columbia professor Rosalind Morris told the Times. “It seemed like a significant misreading of the constituency that he serves and needs.”

The union also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. 

After a few weeks of intimidation by the union members, Doeblin conceded. He agreed to rehire the four fired managers and to recognize the union. (He gave a severance package to the fifth worker that he had fired.) The union agreed to drop the charge and end the boycott. 

“We have re-hired all four store managers who were terminated last week,” the Book Culture statement read. “There is no longer a labor dispute. Book Culture has now recognized the RWDSU as the union representing our employees. We are respectful of the rights of our employees to unionize and of the views of our customers in the community and the university.”

But the store owner’s uneasy feelings towards unions have not changed. “They may have given us the weekend,” he said, “but they also gave us the mob.”

Doeblin added, “My ideology is to make payroll, to make the rent, to make another mortgage payment.”