Union Domino Effect Reaches New Jersey Bookstore

“There was this desire to demand respect from our employers and see our work recognized as the labor that it is.”

One day in the summer of 2022, without announcement, explanation, or fanfare, a new notice appeared on the wall of the breakroom of Labyrinth Books in Princeton, New Jersey. Employees recognized it as the brand new union contract of Politics and Prose, D.C.’s first unionized bookstore, and it lit a fire.

“That was the initial call to action for all of us. After that a small group of people got together and started talking seriously about organizing,” recalls Sarah Kempf, one of Labyrinth Books’ organizers. They started by identifying their co-workers’ common complaints. “In this particular area of New Jersey, it’s just not a livable wage, and it’s a job that’s designed to be a long-term bookselling career.”

Though adequate pay was front of mind for Sarah and many of her coworkers, the notice on the wall sparked a drive within Labyrinth’s workers for a more intangible gain: the dignity they were owed. “Everything had been simmering under the surface for a while… There was this desire to demand respect from our employers and see our work recognized as the labor that it is.”

From grievances to action

The employee Discord server, already used as a space for workers to air their grievances, soon had a thread reserved for union discussion. The bar down the street had cheap drinks and lots of room, a perfect spot for organizers to commiserate with workers fresh off a difficult shift. Sarah remembers the invaluable solidarity built in these discussion zones. “You could stay there for an hour or however long you wanted but we would just sit around and talk. It was a great way to build community, to get people comfortable with colleagues that they don’t see or work with as much during the day. This played a huge role in our organizing. We created spaces both digitally and in person where people could come together and find community among their fellow workers.”

One of the organizers reached out to a contact at EWOC, and Sarah and other future members of the Labyrinth Books organizing committee (OC) wasted no time in attending trainings. “EWOC helped us set the foundation for the organizing committee,” Sarah says. “All of us who were on the OC did the EWOC foundational training together… It was a great way to see how other organizing campaigns were going, to get inspiration, to get questions answered. It was great to have a network of support from all around the country from people who were doing the same thing that we were.”

They contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) not long afterwards. “We knew that we wanted the support of a larger union … when we reached out to them, they were very excited because they had just been organizing the Rutgers Barnes & Noble… They were great in giving us the training that we needed and preparing us for anything we might face in the battle,” Sarah recalls. “RWDSU really wanted to ensure that as many people were inoculated and prepared as they could possibly be and it really paid off for us.”

Community support — and a major win

“Turnover was the most difficult challenge that we dealt with,” Sarah says. Like many other retail enterprises in college towns, Labyrinth’s workforce was constantly shifting, posing a serious threat to organizing attempts. The union effort nearly dissolved at one point after a large number of staff quit, but Sarah and her colleagues persevered.

“It was very demoralizing at first. It felt almost impossible to pick up the pieces after so many people had left,” she says. “What we learned was just how important it is to build a sense of community, to be the colleagues who are there for the new people, to be the first face that they see so they feel comfortable coming to us with their problems… Forming the union gave people a reason to stick around.”

When it was finally time for the campaign to go public, organizers found themselves buoyed by the power of Princeton’s community. This support came most immediately in the form of advice from Princeton faculty and graduate students, but Sarah thinks it had the remarkable effect of pressuring the store’s owners to voluntarily recognize the union as well.

January 9 saw the publishing of a press release declaring the owners’ intention “to use this organizing moment as an occasion to listen to everyone, make positive changes, and form a united Labyrinth that can do all the work we do better together.” Sarah attributes this surprising development to their community organizing efforts: “I think a lot of that had to do with the community support and how much they saw that the workers so overwhelmingly supported the union and how many people from the outside supported it as well… The community has really rallied behind us.”

The single act of pasting another union’s contract to the wall of the breakroom, carried out unprompted by an individual worker who left the bookstore shortly thereafter, set off an incredible wave of community-building that connected the booksellers at Labyrinth Books with Princeton community members, union organizers across the country, and most importantly each other. Through tenacity, resilience, and the enduring power of solidarity, this plucky group of Princeton organizers has secured for their colleagues all of the benefits afforded a unionized workplace. 

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