A vote to unionize is a vote to be sacked at a popular bookstore adjacent to Columbia University’s campus. Following the union elections on Tuesday, the owners of Book Culture, Columbia students' unofficial go-to hub for course books, bestsellers and childrens’ literature (and one of 10 Best Bookstores in the city) have fired five of their thirty employees.
Casey McNamara, an employee at Book Culture’s 112th Street location, voted along with the overwhelming majority of her employees to unionize. She and her co-workers cite a low starting pay (about $9.00/hour), nonexistent or inconsistent raises, an unclear path to promotion, blatant favoritism, and disrespectful comments from the owner as reasons they pursued the vote. In 2009, the Columbia Spectator reported similar complaints by employees, including “issues regarding health insurance” and holiday pay.
As the union’s observer of the vote—to make sure that the election is fair—McNamara was clearly in favor of unionization, and she says she was fired for it.
When casting her vote, McNamara said she was intimidated by owner Chris Doeblin’s niece, who was acting as the employer’s observer at the 112th St. location, and told that she was not qualified to vote. McNamara says she was informed that because she had given her two weeks’ notice, her vote was disqualified.
“I never gave notice, and even if I had given notice, that is not a legitimate reason to challenge my vote. It was blatant disenfranchisement,” McNamara said. The two anti-union votes at that location belonged to Doeblin’s nephew and stepson.
McNamara was fired just hours after the election, along with two of her coworkers at the 112th Street store. All three are now forbidden from entering the bookstore, according to e-mails obtained by Gothamist.
In those emails, Doeblin also explicitly states that he fired his employees for voting to unionize: “It was indicated to me . . . that two people in our mangament [sic] group voted in the union and effectively undermined the interests of the store. The store always being in opposition to the Union. Unfortunately there is no other recourse but to remove these people from our employ effective immediately.”
Under the National Labor Relations Act, it is illegal for employers “to dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization.”
Elizabeth Heintges, an incoming Columbia graduate student whose only source of income was her job as a manager of Book Culture’s Broadway location, was fired along with another manager there. Although both say they were prevented from voting because of their “managerial” positions, Heintges and her co-worker were called into the office of the Broadway location’s co-owner, and “given an ultimatum saying that either we had to stay on as employees who are completely, 100% behind the interests of the owners, and renounce our support for and allegiance to the union, or we would not be able to remain employees.” They were subsequently asked to leave. All the employees at the Broadway location voted to unionize.
Like Heintges, a number of Book Culture employees were promoted to managers around the beginning of this year, around the time that talks of unionizing arose—Heintges's pay raise was $0.50. Around 50% of the employees at Book Culture are managers. While these staffers are called “managers,” they say they do not possess the legal authority to hire, fire and discipline employees, and therefore under the National Labor Relations Act, are legally allowed to vote to unionize.
Asked to comment, the co-owner of Broadway’s location, Annie H. said, “They were managers, supervisors, who weren’t willing to perform their duties as supervisors ... We’re very supportive of the union and we’re looking forward to negotiating a contract with them. These particular supervisors were not comfortable going forward in their role.” When asked what “duties” she referred to, she clarified, “managing the staff.”
Doeblin hasn’t returned a request for comment.
“I’ve never seen this degree of outlandish retaliation in my five years at the RWDSU [Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union],” said Peter Montalbano, organizer of Book Culture’s campaign. The RWDSU has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against Doeblin for his illegal termination of the five workers.
“We just want everyone to work together for our common interests,” Heintges said.
Cecilia D'Anastasio is a fact-checker and research assistant at The Nation Institute, as well as a freelance journalist