Intimidation, Unfair Hiring, but Fair Wages? The Chronicles of Broad Street Books
Ginger Hutchinson, Lucy de Lotbinière, Saam Niami Jalinous
All names of Broad Street Books employees in this article have been changed to protect their anonymity.
On a Monday, as Ana stood behind the register at Broad Street Books, where she works most days until three in the afternoon, she couldn’t help but notice the hysterical phone call her coworker was having just on the other end of the store. She was reluctant to eavesdrop, but the fear and nervousness in her colleague’s voice as they apologized profusely to an unknown voice on the other end of the line made it impossible for her not to listen. Ana wondered what the cause of such a mysterious, and seemingly intimidating call could be, and who it could be from.
Ana didn’t have to wonder for long; it soon became clear that the caller was from R.J. Julia Booksellers. She watched as her coworker began asking around the store who had stirred up all the controversy and posted on R.J. Julia’s Facebook page. When they came to ask the same of Ana, they showed her the post and Ana realized it had been her husband, a Broad Street employee and Wesleyan POSSE student veteran, who had asked what was to come for current bookstore workers following the announcement of the new store. The post had caught the attention of some other students, who questioned whether or not employees would get to keep their jobs with the change in store management.
Ana felt somewhat dumbfounded, not by the revelation it had been her husband all along, but rather by the intense reaction to what she saw as a simple, reasonable inquiry into the future employment status of around twenty Broad Street Books workers.
Broad Street Books maintains in an awkward fashion. It’s empty; the books are gone, the employees are quiet, and you wouldn’t know it’s a university bookstore if it weren’t for the heavily discounted merchandise. There’s a chilling air of uncertainty, and no one seems to know what’s going on.
On November 30, 2016, the Hartford Courant announced to University students, and Broad Street Books employees alike, that the University bookstore would move to a new location on Main Street in Middletown, a move that President Michael Roth called, “A good thing for the city” and “a great thing for Wesleyan.” However, the move is not a good one for employees of Broad Street Books.
To the general populous of the University, the move to Main Street has meant nothing more than a few more blocks of walking during Drop/Add, and fading interest in the pretty pictures the University provided to the media displaying the proposed renovations to 413 Main St. That was, until, the United Student/Labor Action Coalition, or USLAC, began to barrage social media with outcries against R.J. Julia, an independent bookstore based in Madison, Connecticut. R.J. Julia won the bid to manage the new bookstore, pushing Follett, a major publishing corporation, out of management of the University bookstore.
The move makes perfect sense to the greater desires of the University and Middletown; an independent bookseller managing the University’s store rather than a corporation, and basing it in Middletown to foster warming respect and relations between students and non-student citizens of Middletown. But behind every prosperous business deal are the workers who make a business profitable in the first place, with a smaller piece of the bought pie.
A post began to circulate around Facebook on various student’s personal pages, shared from USLAC, bringing broader attention to the situation. The post gave a highly critical retelling of the situation, citing the grave uncertainty that employees felt about their jobs after going months without sustainable information, supposed cuts to pay and benefit, and a lengthy rehiring process that gives no certainty over whether or not current Broad Street Books employees would be able to keep their jobs. USLAC listed a set of demands for R.J. Julia, and asserted that, if not met, would result in USLAC organizing a boycott against the new bookstore:
1. Give all current bookstore workers the opportunity to keep their jobs if they wish to.
2. Guarantee that returning workers will receive at least the salary and benefits they had been receiving before the move.
3. Inform workers immediately about any changes in their workplace and allow them the chance to discuss these issues freely without fear of losing their jobs.
The Artifex reached out to Alec Shea, the communications director of USLAC, to give a comment on the situation. Shea wrote the Facebook statement, and is well-versed in the entire situation. Before we spoke to him in person, Shea made sure we had a copy of the University’s statement that was given to USLAC and The Argus, one that Shea calls “deceptive”:
When the new bookstore was announced last fall, the Wesleyan administration said that current employees at Broad Street Books would have the opportunity to interview for positions at the new bookstore. R.J. Julia’s management reached out to every current employee to offer an interview, and about 20 accepted interviews. R.J. Julia received hundreds of applications in total from the Middletown community, and interviewed nearly 50 people. At this time, three current Broad Street Books employees have been hired to work at the new bookstore. Several more were offered positions but declined them for a variety of personal reasons, and discussions are ongoing with others for possible future employment. All Broad Street Books employees who were hired will be earning the same or a slightly higher salary at the Wesleyan R.J. Julia Bookstore. Because R.J. Julia is an independent bookstore, with a unique customer service-oriented culture and without a corporate parent company like Follett, many of these jobs require different skill sets than similar positions at Broad Street Books. Thus it is not feasible for all current employees to keep their jobs.
R.J. Julia follows all equal opportunity hiring state and federal laws.
The Artifex met with Shea in his junior apartment on campus to give an idea of the situation that many students are unaware about.
“USLAC got involved in this when workers came and spoke to us, people who had experience with other labor issues at Wesleyan,” he says. “And the complaints we heard and the things we heard were very disturbing and that’s why we chose to take this up as an issue.”
There was a months-long interview process for “jobs that they already have, positions they already hold for work they already do.” There was general uncertainty over whether or not new jobs were guaranteed, and how many jobs would be offered at all.
“Wesleyan had a condition that everyone would have to be offered an interview, but being offered an interview is very different from having the opportunity to have a job,” says Shea. He describes that many of the employees, particularly those outside of supervisor roles, were ultimately offered new jobs, with a catch.
“So they previously had been making $13 or $14 per hour, and are going to have to go down to the state minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, which is frankly impossible to live on,” says Shea. “You can’t make a living on that money.”
It was at that point that employees reached out to USLAC to try and bring attention to the issue, and put pressure on the University to take action against their business partners at R.J. Julia.
“[The bookstore] is the only place that takes our student accounts to buy textbooks, it has exclusive rights to the university’s course schedule and it has exclusive rights to create a catalogue around that, exclusive coordination with that system,” says Shea. “The University is not a passive player in this, it is giving the bookstore things.”
Shea tells us that USLAC is engaged in a petitioning and awareness campaign, trying to gather enough student support to address R.J. Julia in a wide-angled movement to show student disapproval. USLAC was in the process of meeting with R.J. Julia to express their demands and present the signatures. The current plan, if the petition campaign does not succeed, is to stage a boycott.
Shea tells us, “If the school is going to give its sort of official approval to something, if it’s going to lend its name to this bookstore as it is, it should be willing to lend the same sort of labor practices that expect to be practiced elsewhere on this campus.”
Shea makes it very clear that the Administration holds more power in this situation than they are putting on, and suggests that they are actively choosing not to take a role in the situation.
“The Administration doesn’t go out of its way without student pressure to take action on these people,” he says. “They’re beholden to people who pay tuition, to alumni who make donations. They're not beholden to the people who are surviving off of the student body, who are surviving off of this campus, and who are, as much as anyone else, members of our community, and they just happen to work here. So I don’t know exactly why the Administration hasn’t made this a priority, I only know that the Administration has never made workers’ rights on campus a priority.”
Shea gives one last thing about a broader implication of the bookstore move that goes beyond workers’ rights, a possible financial detriment to students.
“RJ Julia is a sort of fancy, very rich bookstore, [former NBA player] Ray Allen’s café that’s coming in, their other location charges $11 for a smoothie,” he says” “The indications are that they are going to raise prices. And I don’t know anyone on this campus who thinks they pay too little for textbooks and that the workers are overpaid. And so, I think people should consider that it’s not just about the bookstore workers, it’s about the bookstore that’s being established. The indications are that it’s going to be one that pays people less and charges students more.”
The next move was to scour for any current Broad Street employees that would be willing to speak with us. Surprisingly, we found them fairly quickly. Sarah, and employee of Broad Street Books, was extremely eager to speak with us, but made it clear that the matter could not be discussed anywhere near the store, as to not risk her chances of employment any further.
Sarah called us at around 8:30 that same evening and started to unfurl her discontentment with the current situation. With all the confusion and tension in the store, Sarah became increasingly aware that her job could very well be taken away from her within the next few weeks. She tells us that Follett had been showing concern for the employees at Broad Street Books, but made no initiative to try and move them to other locations.
Urgently, Sarah relays to us that the staff was under the impression that they would all be given the opportunity for a job at the new location. Instead, the employees were all promised interviews with R.J. Julia in Madison, Connecticut, where the company is based. After being made to travel to Madison multiple times during the interview process, certain employees were told that R.J. Julia “couldn’t afford them.” Sarah is one of many current Broad Street Books employees who is understandably disappointed by the news that R.J. Julia could only offer them more hours for less money.
Sarah made it very clear that she feels the students and their families are not coming first with the decision to make the move. “The store is empty,” Sarah admits. Parents come in from all over the world and have been calling Broad Street Books to ask about graduation season and the lack of products available; the employees weren’t given enough information to answer these parents properly.
The only thing the employees had been told, however, was that they were no longer allowed to stock their inventory. In terms of retail, Sarah describes, the state of the store is enough of an explanation as to the way in which the students and parents are blatantly not being prioritized.
Sarah tells us that Wesleyan’s “passion for people’s rights is what makes [her] like being a part of this work.” Her relationship with the school and the students has been positive and the close-knit network that has come as a result of her time at Broad Street Books is not something that she wants to give up. Outright questioning of R.J. Julia’s intentions “is why people choose to go to Wesleyan,” Sarah explains, “these students want to be a part of something bigger.”
We reached out to President Michael Roth for a statement on the issue. President Roth quickly said he had no time to speak on the issue during the weekend we requested, and once we asked to meet the following week, we were emailed by Lauren Rubenstein at the University public relations department. After we refused to conduct the interview over email, we were scheduled to speak with President Roth.
President Roth resides in a grand office in North College where he manages the public sphere of the University. The ceilings are incredibly high, and the walls are a brilliant white, covered with artwork and hosting shelves filled with books. We were joined by a man who occasionally took notes and whom President Roth looked over to on occasion, but he was never given a title.
We start the interview by asking President Roth what his involvement was with the University’s statement to the Argus and USLAC; President Roth confirms that he had reviewed and agreed with it. President Roth states that R.J. Julia has been doing their best to work with the current employees of Follett, and we explain that only three Broad Street Books employees have accepted new jobs with the same or slightly higher pay out of the twenty people who have been interviewed for positions. We ask him if he thought this was an appropriate number of transitioned employees.
“I don’t think there is an appropriate number,” Roth says flatly. “It’ll depend on the employees and what the employer wants.”
Roth explains that some people enjoy working for big corporations like Follett, and some people perform better in smaller, independent stores that are owned by an individual. We inform President Roth that some employees have claimed that they were offered jobs at R.J. Julia with lower wages and longer hours; President Roth says that he would rather not comment on that issue, asserting that he does not know enough on the matter to make a statement. After asking if he himself would take a job with a ⅓ pay cut, Roth states plainly, “Depends on the job.”
The Artifex wanted to know if President Roth was aware of the employees who had already been denied jobs at the new location. The wife of a Wesleyan POSSE student veteran, who supports her husband through her Broad Street Books job, and a disabled person of color were the first two employees that we were told did not get positions at the new location. After emphasizing the fact that the school’s Statement says that “R.J. Julia is an independent bookstore, with a unique customer service-oriented culture,” we ask Roth if he agrees with the statement if it meant denying jobs to these workers. He tells us that he was not aware of these workers being denied jobs
“I don’t know the details of who’s being hired at the bookstore by R.J. Julia and why each person has decided to accept or not accept a position. I can’t comment on your accusation that R.J. Julia didn’t hire someone because they were of color and disabled...the second part doesn’t follow from the first part,” Roth explains.
Shortly after our discussion about these two coworkers and only nine minutes after we had started the interview, Roth decides that he is not comfortable with the interview.
“I no longer consent to this recording...I would like you to turn off your machines now,” he states.
We continue to speak with President Roth, and he makes it fully aware that he does not have enough information to answer our questions, and that we should try to speak with someone who is more attuned with the situation.
Shortly after ending the interview, The Artifex emailed President Roth asking if he could put us in the direction of someone who may be better able to discuss the situation with R.J. Julia. He has not answered. The Artifex also emailed Valerie Nye, a woman who reportedly has a more involved role in the deal with R.J. Julia than President Roth. She has not answered our request for an interview.
Shortly after speaking with President Roth, we reached out to Ana, the aforementioned Broad Street Books employee and wife of POSSE student. Every Broad Street employee was offered an interview, as was stipulated by the University. Yet following those initial interviews, R.J. Julia kept the workers in the dark. As Ana describes it, “it was just silence.” The interviews had ended with R.J. Julia saying they would call, but for weeks the employees waited without hearing back at all as “time passed, and time passed, and time passed.” When The Artifex spoke with Ana, she stressed that many Broad Street employees hold two or three jobs to cover their expenses. Not only are employees confused as to why they need to jump through so many loops to keep a job they already do, but they are also uncertain if they will need to find other work to support their families. Ana expressed frustration at the notion that employees should put their lives on hold waiting to hear back from R.J. Julia: “What do we do, move? Start looking for a job? Are we going to have continuity or what?”
In response to the workers’ claims, R.J. Julia says they had given Broad Street workers a timeline of when they could expect to hear back, and that their response fit within that timeline. However, it’s important to note that this claim contradicts reports given to The Artifex and USLAC by workers, and the timing of their contacting workers with offers for more interviews coincides exactly with the moment students began to pressure R.J. Julia to rehire Broad Street employees. Almost immediately following the public questioning of their hiring practices on their Facebook page, R.J. Julia finally reached out to the workers. However, they did not call with offers of employment, but invitations for second, and for some people even third interviews.
While, at this point, some employees are still awaiting either an offer of employment or a rejection, the majority of Broad Street employees have come to accept the fact they will need to find new work. However, perhaps what has been more challenging to come to terms with for some are the reasons R.J. Julia interviewers gave for denying employment to current workers. When The Artifex spoke with Ana, she spoke fondly of her coworkers, and expressed a deep disappointment in the fact that most of them, herself included, would be unwelcome to be a part of Wesleyan’s new bookstore.
During the interview process, the reasons for which Broad Street employees were denied a position were simple on the surface, but dense with implications that R.J. Julia is seeking employees of a certain race and class. Ana was asked if she was “prepared to give the ‘R.J. Julia experience,’” to which she replied yes, though she was not made aware of what exactly the creation of such an experience would require. However, her interviewer would never find the qualities R.J. Julia seeks to fulfill their undefined aesthetic with in Ana, and she realized they were likely never intending or expecting to when interviewing Broad Street employees. Ana spoke of a coworker who “came to the interview from her factory job in very simple clothing, and she said when she was in the interview she was looked up and down, which happened to me too, and she said, sorry I came straight from my other work. There you see the lack of connection in the heads of these people. ‘Well, I don’t care if you come from other work, so I don’t care if you have to complement your income, because I don’t really care if you don’t have enough money to survive.’”
Despite the vagueness of the “R.J. Julia experience,” Ana told us that employees were willing and eager to learn how to fulfill that experience, and how they could prove to R.J. Julia they were capable and worthy of being rehired. “However,” Ana drew the bottom line, “if you don’t meet their standards, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have the ability to do the job. You aren’t at their level.” The ambiguous standards set by R.J. Julia clearly don’t allow for much flexibility; either interviewees fit the mold, or they did not, and following their interviews, six people were denied even an opportunity to prove how much they were willing to try.
“I don’t know if I’d call it discrimination in the sense that you are inferior to me,” she says, “but it definitely it feels like there’s an invisible line they traced to say you are not the same as me.”
At around 4 p.m. on Monday, April 24th, USLAC held a meeting with two representatives of R.J. Julia in South College, an effort to sit down and discuss the demands USLAC had made public for quite some time. However, there was a change in the plan: USLAC organized a protest the night before, with an open forum planned after the meeting. On cue, a crowd of students gathered outside the west entrance of South College during the meeting between USLAC and the representative from R.J. Julia. The protesters, made up of mostly students, were jovial, but determined. They chant, “No intimidation, no fear, workers must be respected here,” and “R.J. Julia, we’re outraged, workers need a living wage.” The protest stayed relatively calm and uneventful, until the fire alarm went off in South College.
Suddenly, members of the Administration flooded out from the building, but no one from the meeting exited from the east side, so the protesters swiftly marched around the building, chanting as they went. When they reached the west entrance, the protesters begin to read out the highly publicized demands of USLAC to R.J. Julia: rehire, fair pay, no intimidation, and briefly went silent as the fire marshals entered the building. But, the exciting erupted once again when three figures exited the building and stood at the top of the steps: Lori Fazio of R.J. Julia, Valerie Nye of the University’s Finance Office, and Emma Rose of USLAC.
The members of the meeting descended the steps, and members of the protest were given a chance to speak to the individuals who were a part of the meeting. Ms. Nye and Ms. Fazio appeared less than pleased with the situation (it was later discovered that some person unaffiliated with USLAC pulled the fire alarm in an attempt to get the members of the meeting to exit the building, although USLAC already planned to have an open forum after the meeting anyway).
A stack of hundreds of papers were handed to Ms. Fazio, apparently signed by a multitude of students that listed USLAC’s demands of R.J. Julia. The protesters left as quickly as they came, chanting, “We’ll be back.”
R.J. Julia Booksellers was founded in 1989 in Madison, Connecticut, by Roxanne Coady, after a decades long career in New York finance. According to Bloomberg, she served as Director of NewAlliance Bancshares, before its merger First Niagara Bank (currently worth over $40 billion, according to Forbes), where she currently serves as Director. Her husband Kevin was an accomplished real estate developer, and the two have amounted wide successes in their lifetimes that have paved the way to share a clear love of literature and reading. In addition to running R.J. Julia Booksellers, Coady serves as the Chair of Read to Grow in Connecticut, a statewide literacy organization. She also founded JustTheRightBook.com, a personalized book subscription service.
The Artifex reached out to R.J. Julia through their website and maintained an email chain with Lori Fazio, the aforementioned general manager of R.J. Julia. After a few emails, and general disagreement over how exactly to conduct the interview, we received a sudden email from a Roxanne J. Coady, CEO of R.J. Julia. Roxanne gave her full support of communication, but generally was unresponsive to our terms of what exactly a statement meant. At first, she sent us the statement that was sent to the Argus (which has since been published). We refused this as a statement to The Artifex, and asked to meet for an interview. Afterward, Coady sent us, what was essentially, a carbon copy of the same statement to the Argus. We informed Coady that this would not satisfy our request for information, since at this point we had not sent any questions. We ultimately agreed on an email interview with a strict adherence to each specific question, which Coady satisfied.
Coady believes that R.J. Julia will sufficiently meet the academic needs of the University community, with over 200 on and off-campus author events per year, and by organizing a committee with the University to properly understand the needs of the community. Coady specifies that Follett had few author events and little coordination with the community.
Coady rejects any claims that interviewing Broad Street Books employees were met with any wage intimidation, offered the same or higher wages at the new location. She also rejects the accusation that a disabled person of color was not offered employment based on the fact that being a disabled person of color does not fit with R.J. Julia “unique customer service.”
“The individual to whom we believe you’re referring was hired by Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore in January,” she says. “We’re excited that he will be working with us.”
The last few questions concerned USLAC’s intentions to boycott an unreceptive condition in which their demands would not be met by R.J. Julia. Coady announces to us that she believes, as of meeting with USLAC, their position has changed.
“While salary levels were originally determined after closely reviewing industry standards, upon further consideration, we have come to agree that a minimum $12 hourly rate would be more consistent with Wesleyan’s values and policies,” she says. “For full-time employees, this could total the equivalent of $15 an hour with benefits. In fact, the majority of full-time workers at the bookstore will earn significantly more, based on their positions.”
This is a major revelation in USLAC and the disgruntled employees’ fight for fair wages. If true, this would satisfy one of the three demands from USLAC: fair pay.
At this time, the situation is uncertain. R.J. Julia has established their dedication to a fair wage with coordination with the students of USLAC; but, for the employees of Broad Street Books, the future is less clear. According to Roxanne Coady, nineteen employees from Broad Street Books were offered new jobs; three have been hired, eleven have been offered second interviews. Of those eleven, four have not followed up with a second interview. With such a faulty and contentious transition process, racialized rhetoric, and uncertainty for future employment with only three of the over twenty Broad Street Books employees having been hired, what is left to be done remains unsettled. The efforts of USLAC, student activism, and engaged employees have pushed their demands; but what must be considered is that none of this would have happened in the first place without pressure on all sides.
Wesleyan R.J. Julia Bookstore stands in an awkward fashion. It says Wesleyan, but it could not be any more disconnected from the minds of the students it is meant to serve. With such a tumultuous journey, it is unclear what the future holds for the University’s future bookstore.
“In this age when online retailers with highly questionable hiring and staffing practices are driving local independent stores out of business,” Coady says, “we need to come together to support our local community for everyone’s benefit.”