Book store workers write unions into their life at work

Worker at Indigo Square One on union vote day

IT’S LIKE A UNION-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB. Workers at four of the stores in the Indigo book store chain have voted union since late September 2020.

The successful union votes began with the workers at the Indigo Square One Mall  location in Mississauga, Ontario. In less than a month, two more stores followed: Indigo Place Montréal Trust, and Chapters Pinetree Village in Coquitlam, British Columbia. Finally, Chapters in Woodbridge, just north of Toronto, voted to unionize on January 8, 2021.

The COVID-19 effect

COVID-19 had a lot to do with it: good and bad. On the bad side, management choices in the face of the pandemic heightened worker dissatisfaction. But, on the good side, the rise and dominance of social media boosted the success of worker activism.

In March 2020, Indigo laid off 5,200 employees, about 75 per cent of its workforce, and then hired back 545 workers in April 2020.

For workers who returned to work at the Indigo store in the Square One mall in Missisauga it was being assigned to clean the bathrooms that sparked their drive to unionization. Indigo cost cutting had eliminated cleaning services in the store just before the pandemic hit

“All of a sudden we were given extra duties in the store without any extra PPE,” says Jennifer, a worker at the store.

Employees were told that they needed to constantly sanitize the store and clean the bathrooms themselves multiple times throughout the day. Indigo didn’t institute any sort of mask policy.

The workers tried to open a dialogue with their managers. They presented them with a petition outlining their reasons why they felt the extra duties—without extra pay or incentives—were unacceptable.

“It was our first introduction to organizing the store,” Jennifer says. “But instead of talking with us, Indigo decided to tell people to get with the program or leave the company.”

The union choice

The workers created a third choice: they decided to join a union. They reached out to their coworkers, and to the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers).

They took guidance from UFCW and set up an Instagram account where they debunked common disinformation about unions. Their posts caught the attention of workers at some of Indigo’s other 200-plus Canadian stores—including workers at the Indigo store in Woodbridge, just north of Toronto.

Indigo managers there were as bad at staff relations as the ones at the Square One store. Performance evaluations were the sticking point at the Woodbridge store. Workers felt mangers were unfair in making their performance evaluations.

Within a three-month span, two workers in the store were “written up”—supposedly as a constructive way to help them improve. The first worker was written up when they spoke up for their coworkers. Another was told that they weren’t smiling enough.

These tactics didn’t help with staff relations. The workers used a regular employer survey to register their complaints. It was enough to get head office to send a team to the store to investigate and promise sweeping changes. When the changes didn’t come the workers contacted the workers at Square One for advice on how to unionize.

Community support

The lockdown had boosted the use of social media, which actually made it easier to connect and organize, says Sabrina, a worker at the Chapters location in Woodbridge.

Jennifer, from Square One, says community support was the key factor in the successful union vote at her store. Community organizations reposted the campaign’s social media posts, attended their informational pickets, and even showed up to the stores.

Several well-known local politicians shared their support via posts and videos. The local teacher’s union visited the store and answered questions from workers about what their union meant to them.

The workers at the Pinetree Village location also received similar community support and endorsements from former MP (NDP) Libby Davies and Jagmeet Singh, federal NDP leader.

“It’s a really kind of beautiful new style of organizing where the campaign itself was driven by the workers, who are quite young, through social media,” says Kevin Shimmin, a national representative with UFCW.

The next step for the workers will be bargaining strong collective agreements at all four stores. A challenge they are as ready, able and willing to take on as they were to win their union drives.

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