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Workers at Labyrinth Books file unionization petition, likely to unionize

A storefront with "Labyrinth Books" printed across a blue awning. Books and strings of paper cranes are displayed in the windows.
Labyrinth employees are set to vote on unionization, with a simple majority required to establish a union.
Samantha Lopez-Rico / The Daily Princetonian

At 10 a.m. on Dec. 21, employees at Labyrinth Books, located at 122 Nassau Street, opened its doors to the public as usual. But, as customers flowed in to browse, employees gathered together on the floor and announced their intent to unionize.

If successful, Labyrinth will become the first independent bookstore in N.J. to unionize and the second overall, after Barnes & Noble College Bookstore at Rutgers.

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The statement, read aloud by store employee Rebecca Ziemann, explained that the effort originated from the belief that “unionization and collective bargaining will create a better future for this bookstore,” and was also motivated by the employees’ desire to be treated with “dignity, respect, and transparency.” The key demands of the organizers are higher wages and more transparency on the part of the store’s owners.

Labyrinth Books first opened its doors in Princeton town in the fall of 2007, replacing Micawber Books as the official partner of Princeton University, and became one of the most popular bookstores in the Princeton area. According to its website, the store hosts numerous events and talks throughout the year and engages in various community partnerships. Currently, the store has three owners — Dorothea von Moltke, Cliff Simms, and Peter Simms — five managers, and 19 employees.

At least 30 percent of employees have to be in support of a unionization petition to file, according to rules set by the National Labor Relations Act. After a petition is filed, there are two possibilities — the employers can voluntarily recognize the union, in which case workers go directly to the bargaining stage, or the employers can choose not to recognize the union, in which case an election is held, with a simple majority of employees being sufficient to gain recognition by the employer. 

Though employees in a store-wide speech urged “the management of Labyrinth to voluntarily recognize the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) as a representative of our collective bargaining at Labyrinth Books,” the owners have not recognized the union. 

“We as owners of Labyrinth recognize the intention of our employees to unionize … We will, of course, recognize our employees’ choice,” Von Moltke said in a statement to The Daily Princetonian. “If a majority of our employees vote in favor of unionization, we will bargain in good faith for all of our employees and expect to reach a fair and acceptable contract.” 

The process of finalizing a date for an election is ongoing. Ziemann and Maria DiPasquale, a representative from RWDSU, told the ‘Prince’ that they are confident there is majority support among employees, suggesting that the unionization vote will pass.

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Ziemann, who grew up in the Princeton area and has worked at Labyrinth since May of 2022, explained that unionization has been a frequent topic of discussion since she joined. However, efforts only seriously began around September of 2023, when workers contacted the Emergency Workers Organizing Committee (EWOC) for help starting the unionizing process. Since then, store employees have been working with EWOC and RWDSU in their unionization efforts.

The increased interest in unionization at Labyrinth comes at a time of growing labor activity across New Jersey and the country. Down the street at Starbucks, unionization at the Hopewell Township location prompted interest in unionizing among employees at the Princeton location, while NJ Transit engineers voted on going on strike in August.

At Labyrinth, Ziemann is part of the receiving department, which is in charge of preparing books for sale. She describes the job as “part warehouse, labor heavy job [where] you’re lugging boxes of books around, and part detail-oriented data entry work.” However, Ziemann finds that her current compensation of $15 an hour, 87 cents above New Jersey’s 2023 minimum wage, is not sufficient compensation. Notably, Labyrinth requires that all employees hold a bachelor’s degree. 

With regards to employee benefits, Ziemann said that current PTO (paid time off) and vacation and sick time are not enough.

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“As someone who is chronically ill, I don’t get enough sick time to cover that … So we are hoping for increased compensation, especially in line with increased responsibility.”

Ziemann also emphasized that higher wages are especially important for employees’ ability to live near Labyrinth, as “none of [the employees] can afford to actually live in Princeton” due to rising housing prices. 

Beyond improved wages and benefits, employees seek transparency from management through unionization.

“I don't have any documentation from my employer on how PTO works," Ziemann cited as an example of transparency issues. "I have not actually received an explanation in the entire year and a half that I've worked here about exactly how many days [off] I get.”

She, in part, attributes communication breakdowns between managers and non-managers to the fact that Labyrinth operates as a "non-hierarchical" workplace despite having positions such as managers that suggest a hierarchy.

Ziemann emphasized that employees’ motivations to unionize are also connected to the care for Labyrinth that many in the community share.  

“If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t be working so hard to improve it.”

Lana Swindle, a first-year college student who lives in Princeton, frequents Labyrinth often — partly because of the convenient location and friendly employees. She told the 'Prince' that employees’ readiness to strike up conversation contributes to an “overall friendly atmosphere.”

Ziemann shared this view. “I have found a really great community [at Labyrinth], all my coworkers are super wonderful and super supportive, and I genuinely like working with them.”

Amanda Demers and Francisco Rodriguez, two customers who visit from outside of Princeton to purchase books for Rodriguez’s research, described the employees as approachable and knowledgeable compared to larger bookstores they’ve been to, and both expressed their support for unionization. 

“I will 100 percent support unionization because it is an essential part of labor and this place needs to have respect for their employees.” Rodriguez said. 

Christopher Bao is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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