As the sun set on Pacific Avenue on Jan. 12, a distanced group of about 40 people gathered in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz as speakers spoke through a megaphone. The employees of Bookshop Santa Cruz, donned red-emblazoned t-shirts, organized this rally to garner support for their ongoing unionization efforts. 

In a statement released on Dec. 12, workers demanded an end to at-will employment, cost of living adjustments, pay transparency, reevaluated health and safety protocols and tangible anti-racist procedures, among other things.

“We, the unrepresented employees of Bookshop Santa Cruz have decided to form a union to represent ourselves regarding issues of equitable wages, job security, health and safety, improved benefits and scheduling,” reads the Bookshop Union’s mission statement. 

Bookshop employee Celeste Orlovsky takes to the megaphone about Bookshop’s lack of worker protections. Photo by Thomas Sawano.

Bookshop workers partnered with the Democratic Socialists of America Santa Cruz (DSA) to organize the rally. The rally lasted 30 minutes and featured five speakers. Kate Palacio, Bookshop’s head gift buyer and the sole manager who is a union organizer, spoke on the necessity of organized labor. 

“When I work alongside these folks day-to-day, I know I want to work in a cooperative collaboration with people,” Palacio said. “I want to work somewhere where I know my back is had and I’m not merely being exploited for my labour.” 

Other speakers represented the DSA and spoke about the importance of workers coming together to organize for their rights. After 30 minutes the rally closed, with organizers and employees exchanging elbow touches and well wishes before the crowd dissipated.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average non-union worker made 81 cents on the dollar of a unionized worker in 2019. UCSC politics professor Megan Thomas said unions can benefit workers in a variety of circumstances.

“Regardless of what the conditions are now, being part of a union or wanting to be a part of a union doesn’t need to be something of desperation,” Thomas said. “It can be a positive step to preserving and bettering the workplace.”

“Momrade” and Bookshop head gift buyer Kate Palacio — the sole member of the store’s management who aided in the union organization effort — speaks to a scattered crowd of about 40 about how systemic issues with capitalism manifest in particular injustices. Photo by Thomas Sawano.

Bookshop employee Celeste Orlovsky spoke at the union rally, emphasizing the need for tangible protections, such as options for health insurance and de escalation training for all staff. 

“Bookshop has a duty to not just pay lip service to its liberal values,” Orlovsky said in their speech. “How is the bookshop going to pick ‘The Cold Million,’ a historical fiction book on the international workers of the world, then turn around and say that a union is not right for the bookshop, not now.” 

Due to the legal constraints of a union vote, Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Casey Coonerty-Protti is unable to discuss matters with members of the union or directly comment on grievances that triggered the union election.

Bookshop workers filed for a union vote on Dec. 14, and began collecting votes by mail on Jan. 12. The results of this vote will be tabulated and released on Feb. 6.

“The voting procedures require distance between management and staff,”  Coonerty-Protti said. ”And that distance makes it so management can’t predict outcomes effectively ahead of time.”

But to union organizer Kate Palacio, the unionization effort and the conflict with ownership isn’t personal. 

“I know that she has had to make really difficult financial decisions around Bookshop, and in a lot of ways, I admire her as a leader,” Palacio said. “Unfortunately, it’s become a structural mess.”