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Kansas City is quickly becoming the hub for a Half Price Books union effort

Six people stand in a line in front of a counter and bookshelves. A sign above them reads "Sell your books here"
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
On Nov. 17, workers at Kansas City's Half Price Books location in Westport unanimously won their vote to unionize.

Employees at Westport's Half Price Books voted to unionize on Nov. 17. Overland Park employees unionized in July. If workers at the Olathe store vote to unionize later this month, Half Price Books Workers United will have organized about 10% of the company.

Twelve workers at Kansas City’s Half Price Books in Westport unanimously won a Nov. 17 vote to unionize, making them the 11th unionized store in the country.

The vote at the Westport store is the latest in a succession of Half Price Books unions starting up in the area. Employees at the store in Overland Park unanimously voted to unionize in July; Half Price Books in Wichita unionized last year. On Nov. 30, workers at the Olathe location will vote on whether to join their colleagues in United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2 and other stores in Half Price Books Workers United.

If workers at the Olathe store win their election, the UFCW will have organized about 10% of the company — a third of that union now lies in the Kansas City region. Half Price Books Workers United began in Minnesota, but the Kansas City area has become a new hub for the organizing efforts.

“I care so deeply about the people that I work with, and I believe that they all need to be protected. This isn’t about books. I would even say it’s not even about pay raises. It’s about people,” said Vince Medellin, who has worked at the Westport store for nearly a decade.

The win didn’t come easily. Employees said Half Price Books’ resistance to the effort included raises that did not apply to unionizing workers.

Employees at the Westport store said they began organizing due to loss of sick time after the COVID-19 lockdowns. During the state of emergency, workers could use vacation time as sick time, but that policy ended when the emergency orders were lifted. Some employees were fired, they said, after running out of sick time while dealing with long-term diagnoses and required time off for COVID precautions.

Sick time policies also inspired the unionization effort in Overland Park. But those workers said they also dealt with mold and a broken cooling system before moving to a new storefront location last summer. Employees said they were then required to move the store themselves — packing all the books on pallets and using forklifts. They said when they asked for hazard pay, they were denied.

In a statement after Westport’s vote, Half Price Books President Kathy Doyle Thomas said in an email to KCUR that the company will recognize the Westport union and will begin working with union representatives.

In July, Doyle Thomas said she was “disappointed” with the Overland Park worker’s union win. The company later unsuccessfully objected to that election.

Medellin said he believed the change in tone was because Half Price Books realizes that the organizing movement is strong and spreading quickly to other stores.

When Half Price Books and the UFCW meet to negotiate a new contract, workers said their priorities are better time off, including reinstating sick time to pre-pandemic levels; living wages; a say in the technology used in their jobs; and better safety policies.

A brick store facade has a red sign that says "Half Price Books, Records, Magazines. The window says "We buy music, we buy books, we buy movies."
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Workers at the Westport Half Price Books joined those in Overland Park, Olathe and Wichita, Kansas, in making the Kansas City region a hub for the national organizing movement.

Company resistance

Days before the Westport vote, Medellin said, he and his coworkers were surprised to see Doyle Thomas and company attorney Jennifer Rodriguez at the store. The pair met with a group of employees in the back room, where, Medellin said, they appeared openly hostile in a discussion about the union.

Doyle Thomas said the meeting was a part of her visit to stores across the country to discuss the company’s wages and competitive health benefits.

“I’ve been on the road this week, visiting our stores and listening to employees across the country,” Doyle Thomas said in the statement to KCUR. “In Kansas City, we felt like it was valuable to listen to employee concerns and to answer any questions that employees had before the vote took place. We wanted to give each employee the opportunity to speak directly to company representatives, even if it is the last time we could do so.”

Alicia Gloor, a bookseller at Overland Park who has been with the company for about two years, said employees there also had meetings with corporate representatives before their vote.

Gloor said the visits were an attempt to intimidate workers before the vote, but they were more shocked by company-wide raises that excluded her store and others.

Westport workers submitted their petition to unionize in early October. A few weeks later, Half Price Books CEO Sharon Anderson Wright announced company-wide raises. All hourly employees were given 6% raises and the starting wage went up to $16 an hour.

Those raises applied to all employees at Half Price Books’ more than 120 stores — except those who were unionized or in the process of unionizing. Medellin said that was an attempt to discourage unionizing.

“To increase the pay for everybody else except for the unionized stores, that hurt me,” Medellin said. “There are people that I care about who I know need that money. I can’t really fathom why a company would try to create this persona that they’re family oriented and then do this to us.”

Doyle Thomas said the company cannot give raises to union stores or those in the process of unionizing because wages have to be negotiated with the UFCW.

The National Labor Relations Act does make it illegal to change wages without first bargaining with the union. But in a September decision, a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled that Starbucks violated national labor law when it increased wages only to non-union employees, saying the company should have presented the raises to the union as well. The UFCW says Half Price Books is stalling negotiations.

“We're looking forward to taking action and bringing attention to what this company is doing when they say that they value their employees and they value the environment, but they're doing the exact opposite,” Gloor said. “Their words are not aligning with their actions, and they just have been refusing to take accountability for that. We are the ones suffering because of it.”

Bookcases are set on either side of a door. On the door is a sign that says "Voting Place." Above the door is a sign that reads: "Be fair to customers and our employees, promote literacy, be kind to the environment and remain financially viable so we may continue."
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Workers say the company's mission statement, featured above their back room door, also provides motivation for the unionization effort.

Bread and butter, and books too

William Theberge, who has worked at the Westport location for two years, said the movement has strengthened ties between stores. The four stores in the Kansas City region may conduct contract negotiations together as a bargaining district.

“We have had more communication in between stores than ever,” Theberge said. “It was much more competitive before this all started getting rolling. But now we have weekly, if not daily, communication amongst everyone.”

Rachelle Netzer, UFCW’s national coordinator for Half Price Books, said other stores are looking to Kansas City for inspiration for their union drives. Stores in Minnesota that are still working towards a first contract are gaining strength from the wins in Kansas City.

“When you have success in the middle of the country where people might think that things are less progressive, you demonstrate that this is not actually about an ideological issue,” Netzer said. “This is bread and butter about people's paychecks, about their livelihood, about their security, about their families.”

The Half Price Books union is only two years old, but UFCW is preparing for its rapid growth. Netzer says the union’s strategy was to keep the movement organic. The UFCW website has a page for Half Price Books workers to reach out to organizers to make the UFCW available to any Half Price Books employee looking to unionize.

Netzer said that after the success of the Overland Park and Westport stores, as well as the national day of action in support of the bargaining Minnesota stores, UFCW has seen an influx of interest from workers at other stores who want to organize.

“I wouldn't be surprised if you start seeing more stores start to talk about this or file (for an election) within the next few months of us doing this because everybody is curious about what's happening in Kansas City,” Medellin said. “It feels great to be a part of this movement and being able to lend our influence.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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