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Book Slaves

A Chapters union organizer on cheap labour and box store ethics.

By Charles Demers 26 Dec 2006 |

Charles Demers is a frequent contributor to Tyee Books.

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Don't moan, organize.

Jason Sullivan -- the chief architect of the successful drive to organize a union at the Chapters bookstore on busy Robson Street in downtown Vancouver, and currently one of three shop stewards -- is a better basketball player than I am and, it turns out, a better labour organizer. As part of the same group of friends who gather to play ball in East Vancouver, the much-taller Sullivan is often my check, and just as often hits shots well over my head. That action seems a fitting metaphor for his success in organizing his own workplace into the service sector local of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), a feat that I was only partially able to pull off back in 1999/2000. (I was working in an arcade called Playdium, and we decertified before we could win a first contract.)

Sullivan, the 30-year-old son of two teacher librarians, began work as a shipper/receiver for the Chapters B.C. flagship store two weeks before it opened in July of 1998. Seven years later to the month, he and his co-workers voted 95 per cent for union certification. He answered my question about the process, as well as the place of booksellers and book retailers in the world of Canadian letters, via e-mail.

Charles Demers: Last year an anonymous letter-writer to Quill & Quire, identifying him or herself only as a bookseller, claimed that in addition to Canada Council grants and other allowances and prizes for authors and publishers, the publishing industry in Canada is also subsidized by the poor wages of booksellers. Is that the case, in your experience?

Jason Sullivan: I would have to say yes, but low wages are a part of a cycle. Low wages push people to need more hours at work, but people end up only working six hours a day, five days a week and are frustrated by an inability to make ends meet, and try to find other jobs and then quit. This leads to high rates of turnover, which helps keep wages low. It is not just in the book industry; you could probably make the argument for most sectors in retail. It is interesting that I work with people who have worked at other retailers, such as the GAP or the Bay or HMV, and they all end up in the aforementioned cycle, moving from one place to the next as if a change of scenery will break that cycle.

Is it possible for Canadian publishing to stay afloat with a better deal for booksellers? In other words, can it work as a real economy?

In my opinion, it does seem probable. Organizations such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has delivered studies for years [proving] that raising the minimum wage would have an overall benefit to the economy. It seems to me that it is a logical extension that if booksellers received better wages, that would boost the "real economy." We are going to be spending money on rent, food, transit passes, perhaps a movie or dinner in a restaurant. None of our money will disappear into the ether. What I feel also needs to be done in conjunction with realizing a better deal for booksellers, is for government to respond to years of cutbacks and atrophy in the public education system by funding libraries and fomenting reading skills in schools. I think most people would agree that as a society Canadians would be better off with more people reading and buying books. This would also benefit the publishing industry, in such an obvious way as just providing it with more customers.

What were the major grievances around which the union was organized, and has the first contract addressed these issues? To what extent? Who works at Chapters?

The major issues that drove organizing and the subsequent negotiations were hours of work, job security and to a lesser extent, wages. People were committed to the idea that a two- or three-dollar raise was not going to benefit them much if they were only going to end up being scheduled 15 or 20 hours a week. Some workers want part-time hours because of commitments such as another job or school, but a number of them want to work full time, especially as that translates into benefits such as paid sick days. Our first collective agreement has language that provides people with seniority the longer shifts, if they so choose, and allows for part-time workers to work the hours they feel they are available for. It is early, but it seems that both sides, employer and worker, are trying to end up on common ground on this issue. The workers at the Robson location are a multiculturalist's dream. We have a range of people representing a wide diversity of age, sexual orientation, ethnicity and of course gender.

Does the company now want to see this store do poorly vis-à-vis its other stores in the area? Are you asking consumers who support the union to shop exclusively at your location?

On the contrary, it is still a business to be run. I do believe that the company wants the store to do as well if not better than any other stores in the area or the country. In the end, there is a tangible benefit for them if it does so. I would hope that consumers would think critically about everywhere they shop, and that they would support unions whenever the choice is available.

There's a tendency among progressives towards seeing smallness and independent ownership as virtues in and of themselves when it comes to bookstores. A lot of people mourn the emergence of Chapters and the disappearance of smaller stores. But the contract at Chapters raises some interesting questions about that -- perhaps an organizational model such as Chapters is better suited to provide livable wages and benefits than smaller operations. Do independent bookstores have the infrastructures necessary for that sort of social sustainability?

I agree, it can seem to be a conundrum. I think it is merely scale. Independent ownership is no guarantee of livable wages or benefits or job security. For example, Duthie's can operate just as arbitrarily towards their workers as any Indigo across the country. What intrinsic value is there in the size of the operation? With more and more Canadian markets, especially retail ones, trying to follow the Wal-Mart model of operation, I believe that there are going to be fewer small and independent shops of every stripe in Canada. It seems to be a problem for more than just the book industry.

Tell me about the buying system that Chapters has adopted in recent years. Does it create more work, or less work? Does it make competing with Chapters less or more possible for independent stores?

To me it would seem that it has created more work just with all of the tech support it consumes. In some ways it does make it harder to compete with Chapters, as the amount and variety of titles that are available to consumers through the order/procurement process is fairly staggering. I am often amazed at how many self-published titles from imprints such as Trafford, Iuniverse or Xlibris are listed in the system and on the website. This is probably more of a benefit for consumers and personal choice, but that seems to be a strong motivation for many of the customers with whom I have interacted.

Is Chapters good for Canadian writing and publishing? Is it bad? Or are those the wrong questions?

It is difficult to attach a moral judgment to this idea. Chapters benefits Canadian writing in that it provides a great deal of shelf space for Canadian authors to be seen and browsed by the public. In my experience, both the people working there and the company seem pointedly to support and promote Canadian writers and books, sometimes with messianic fervour. I suppose that this is good for Canadian writing and publishing. Of course, there are critics who can probably point out something Chapters does that is detrimental to Canadian publishing. It would seem it depends mostly on the beholder.