As an author and as a reader, I love bookstores. I want to support bookstores that treat their employees fairly and respectfully, because knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff are the difference between a good bookstore and a great bookstore. So I was delighted when the staff at my local Chapters/Indigo store became members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, and recently reached their first collective agreement.
Traditionally, retail outlets staffed by younger or part-time workers have been perceived as challenging to unionize. I was curious about the process that led to the formation of the Indigo 771 union, so I got in touch with Ariel Popil and Alex Johnson, the two union stewards at the store. They graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the experience of organizing the union.
[Note: since this discussion took place, workers at another Chapters/Indigo location, at Kennedy Commons in Scarborough, Ontario, have started a certification campaign.]
How many full-time and part-time staff work at Indigo/Chapters Pinetree? How many of those staff are in the union?
There are about 30 part-time staff members at any given time, and we have one full-time staff member. All part-time and full-time staff are part of the union.
When did the organizing campaign start, and why did it start? What was happening at the store that made the workers want to be represented by a union?
Our organizing campaign started roughly mid-September of last year, and we were in talks about it at the end of August, beginning of September. We started it for a number of reasons.
Why did the workers at Pinetree decide to organize with the UFCW?
We researched and looked into a number of unions before landing on the UFCW. As there are not many retail unions in general, grocery store unions are roughly the closest to retail. The UFCW were also very accommodating and forward with us when we first talked to them, and they helped us through the process. We also liked that they were a non-profit union and offer a wide array of other benefits to their members.
How did the store management react to the organizing campaign?
Indigo thought that the band-aid solution was to let go of our immediate General Manager, as well as a few others in the following months that they thought were agitating the staff. But our issues went much deeper than that. Management were not openly expressive about their opinions on having a union, nor did they deter us from joining one. After our application to join the union became public, a third-party person, whose title we cannot remember, came in and spoke to all the staff members, sometimes in groups and to others individually, to learn about the concerns of the members and relay them to management. This happened at the other unionized stores as well.
Retail workplaces can be challenging to organize because of the high numbers of part-time staff, and because of staff turnover. Were either of those factors an issue in the Indigo/Chapters Pinetree organizing campaign?
It was not an issue for us! Indigo has one classification for part-time employees, so there are no separate departments. All of us work together all of the time. Most of the staff in our store are very tight-knit and talk at and outside of work.
Younger workers are also perceived as being more difficult to organize because they might not know a lot about unions or unionized workplaces, or they might have negative perceptions of unionization. Was that an issue in this campaign?
Quite the opposite, in our experience. We found it easier to communicate with the younger staff members because they did not have any pre-conceived notions of unions, affording us a valuable opportunity to explain in full our shared reasons for organizing. A lot of them were the most receptive to an educating conversation, and even still, we encouraged them to do their own research if they wished. On the other side, older staff had biases already formed from past experiences.
What did the organizing committee do to build support for the idea of unionizing the store?
We didn’t have much work in the way of generating support with the majority of our staff members, as we all were struggling, with no internal solutions of our own. We had no means as individuals, but we all understood the power of a collective.
When was the application for certification filed, and when did the vote take place?
The application happened at the end of September, and the vote took place in mid-October.
How many staff voted, and what was the outcome?
27 out of 29 staff members voted. The results were 19 in favour of joining the union and 8 against.
How did the bargaining committee set its priorities for bargaining?
Our priorities were to change as much as possible for the best possible outcome. We wanted fair hours for people who had been there for a long time, guaranteed pay increases, and the ability to hold management accountable.
How would you characterize the tone of the negotiations? Was the pace faster or slower than expected?
This was our first time as part of a bargaining committee, and both of us found the process to be slower than we expected.
Are there other unionized Indigo/Chapters stores in Canada? If there are, did their experience have any effect on how certification and bargaining went at Pinetree?
There are currently four other stores, with others to follow. We definitely see growing interest from other locations, and all the unionized stores continue to offer support and encouragement to those forming their own campaigns.
Initially, when we were building our own campaign, we weren’t yet aware of [the unionization at] Square One [in Mississauga, Ontario], but during our discussions with our local unions the news went public, which we felt helped really get the ball rolling for us. It gave us a positive and personal point of reference for conversations with the staff.
What advice would you give to other retail workers who might be thinking about starting a union in their workplace?
It’s everyone’s union, not yours. That requires an immense amount of listening and understanding your team as a whole. Everyone’s problems may differ, but all retail employees currently share a vast amount of common ground in their work struggles. You’ll struggle to form a campaign and sustain a certification if you don’t reach out to everyone with the intention to offer solutions to common problems, while still being smart about your team conversations. Expectations must be reasonable and your promises kept honest.
Thanks very much to Ariel and Alex for sharing their experiences. To learn more about Indigo 771, or to contact them, you can follow the union and DM them on Instagram and Twitter. They can also be reached by email at email@example.com.