‘We can read you like a book’: Moe’s Books workers unionize, rally

Eliana Marcu/Staff
In order to advocate for safe working conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, employees at Moe's Books unionized by joining the Industrial Workers of the World. In celebration of the unionization, about 100 Berkeley residents, students and Moe’s Books employees gathered Saturday for a solidarity rally.

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At the onset of the pandemic, Kalie McGuirl’s dream job working at Moe’s Books turned into one that she described as “highly stressful,” requiring regular interactions with customers who refused to follow the store’s mask policy.

McGuirl is among the Moe’s Books employees who recently decided to unionize, joining the Industrial Workers of the World. On March 9, the union was voluntarily recognized by Doris Moskowitz, the owner of the Telegraph Avenue bookstore.

On Saturday afternoon, about 100 Berkeley residents, students and Moe’s Books employees gathered at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street for a solidarity rally in celebration of the union.

The crowd buzzed with excitement as the buttery aroma of waffles from a neighboring shop wafted through the air. Upbeat music blared from a speaker, and masked attendees greeted each other with elbow bumps.

“Bosses beware: we can read you like a book,” read one sign wielded by a supporter. “The working class is coming for that a–,” read another. 

The unionization of Moe’s Books workers adds the historic bookstore to a growing list of businesses nationwide whose employees have turned to collective bargaining to advocate for safe working conditions amid a pandemic that has turned some retail workers into essential workers.

McGuirl, who has worked at Moe’s for almost three years, said the rally’s purpose was to both celebrate and demonstrate to management that the union had the community’s support before entering contract negotiations later this month.

According to McGuirl, job security and disagreements with management over changes to safety protocols have been the driving forces behind unionization. For McGuirl and other workers, the stress of having to constantly monitor customers to ensure her own safety has been amplified by a fear of being fired or retaliated against for enforcing safety protocols, she added.

McGuirl also alleged that Moskowitz removed her from the Sunday shift after a customer wrote a negative review and called the store to complain when he was asked by McGuirl to pull his mask over his nose.

As of press time, Moskowitz could not be reached for comment.

“Everyone knows you don’t work in a bookstore for the money, you do it because you love books,” said Moe’s Books employee Noah Ross during the rally. “Unfortunately, book workers have for years been expected to put up with precarious work, low wages and slim benefits.”

Owen Hill, an employee, emphasized during the rally that the union workers are looking for respect, proper compensation and a safe workplace. 

Hill asked attendees to purchase a book from Moe’s Books after the rally to demonstrate to management that the union is not attempting to tear Moe’s Books down, a sentiment that was also echoed by Ross.

“The best way you can support us is to shop at Moe’s,” Ross said at the rally. “There isn’t a union if there isn’t a shop, so please go find a book, and take it home if you feel so inclined.”

Many attendees took Ross and Hill’s calls to support the bookstore to heart, forming a queue that went out the entryway of Moe’s Books and stretched a third of a block.

Contact Iris Kwok at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @iriskkwok.