Our Working Lives

D.C.: POLITICS & PROSE UNIONIZES WITH LOCAL 400

Originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 67, printed February 3. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Kat McNeal

Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore with three locations in Washington, D.C., is the first bookstore in the district to unionize. The approximately 100 workers are now represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400.

The Virginia Defender spoke to Isa Salazar of the Politics and Prose Workers Union Organizing Committee about the process of getting organized.

Salazar, 30, is a subscription coordinator and bookseller who has worked at the store since August 2020. She described the workers’ primary grievances as pay issues, understaffing and insufficient COVID-19 safety measures.

“There had always been talks about unionizing, ever since I started,” Salazar said. “There have been problems typical of a small retail store.” Those discussions renewed in January 2021, after “a big COVID scare” caused the store to close for a week, but then died down again.

This successful attempt began with informal conversations in October 2021, which quickly grew into a larger meeting. Workers at the Den, the coffeeshop at the store’s main Connecticut Avenue NW location, also participated. Salazar recalled that a coworker happened to know someone at UFCW and invited them in.

“That was really one of the least complicated parts. Having them with us has been great,” she said.

Early last December, the Politics and Prose Workers Union had over half the employees on board and approached owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine to ask that the store voluntarily recognize their union, so that collective bargaining could proceed.

Salazar said that Graham and Muscatine initially refused, which she said didn’t come as a surprise, but the workers weren’t discouraged.

“From the get-go, we were prepared to rise to the challenge,” she said.

The workers then filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, which is the other means of securing union recognition from an employer. The Politics and Prose Workers Union then went public on Twitter. Salazar says that they were met with an outpouring of support – and some unexpected information.

“We found out that this had actually been attempted before in 1995.”

Before the end of the month, the owners changed their minds. The bookstore workers were expecting to enter their first contract negotiation near the end of January.

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