03/23/2012 04:48 pm ET

Strand Bookstore Workers Fight For Better Contract

Visitors to the Strand Book Store, a quirky bastion of the New York intellectual tradition on Broadway and 12th Street, may have noticed that the place has begun to look a little less quirky lately. It used to be you could buy any book from the discount rack outside the store for a dollar, a great deal if you were in the market for a biography of an obscure choreographer or an atlas with a map of the Soviet Union. Now the sidewalk books cost as much as five bucks each, and the bag check at the front of the store has given way to display cases filled with tchotchkes.

No one is crying over these changes, but employees say the new look is part of a broader cost-saving effort that may affect their livelihoods. Compared with many bookstores, the Strand has long been seen as a good place to work: employees belong to a union, the United Auto Workers, and receive health insurance, paid vacations and higher-than-average wages. But their contract ran out in August, and the union is still negotiating with management over a new one.

As the negotiations have dragged on, union leaders have been trying to build solidarity among the 150 rank-and-file workers who would be affected by the changes. They've printed up message buttons ("Unite!"), reached out to activists involved with the Occupy movement and circulated a petition asking workers whether they'd be willing to make concessions.

According to Cyrus Kleege, a 7-year employee and a union representative, the workers have loudly replied in the negative.

"People are pretty loathe to give anything up right now," he said.

Kleege, 32, was sitting on a bench in Union Square on his lunch break, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and wearing a grey cap that made him look a bit like someone from the union's glory days. He said he earns $14.35 an hour and thinks that's a pretty good deal, but that's just the point, he said: He likes his job and wants to keep it that way. So he's not about stand idly by while the management takes back personal days and sick days and establishes a two-tier wage system in which new hires will receive lower wages and fewer benefits.

Eddie Sutton, a manager, said that the business about the two-tier system wasn't true, but he didn't deny that sick days and personal days were on the line.

"It's a very difficult economy," he said, "and inside of that economy books or bookstores are under very special challenges." He cited the growth of the electronic book market and the death of the Borders chain last summer. "We're struggling to stay afloat," he said. "Everything that we do is with that one goal in mind, to remain in business."

The situation at the Strand isn't the most dire labor story around, but in an odd way, that's arguably what makes it meaningful. The workers aren't really fighting to get by, but they are fighting back, demonstrating a growing awareness of the importance of working class solidarity. According to Kleege, employees are much more interested in union issues now than they were when they negotiated the old contract several years ago. He credited this to both the bad economy and the impact of the Occupy movement and the 2011 Wisconsin protests. "I believe that the whole working class can organize for their own interests collectively," he said. "There are healthy signs."

Kleege can talk about such things with some authority. He's writing a book himself, a historical novel set in the mining region of Pennsylvania where he is from. It opens with the anthracite coal strike of 1902. When he comes across shoppers at the Strand who are interested in learning more about the history of labor struggles, he recommends "There Is Power in a Union," by Philip Dray. But he also suggests that there's no research like experience.

"People who think that unions are obsolete," he said, "maybe just haven't had the experience in their own life that they really change the dynamic between the people who are paid profit and people who are just working for an hourly wage."