Waterstones booksellers are workers too – and they need to get organised

Tackling the low pay endemic to the retail sector will only be possible through increased union membership.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

As an ex-Waterstones member of staff, I was both dismayed and heartened to see that workers at the chain booksellers had delivered a 9,300 strong petition highlighting the issue of poverty pay and demanding a living wage for all staff. While little seems to have changed in the 15 years since I left, staff are still fighting for better conditions.

The activists that organised the petition, and those who produced a book Working at Waterstones, which details the experience of living on Waterstones wages, deserve our respect for publicising this hidden scandal. But it’s a travesty that they should have to do so.

I was a bookseller at Waterstones for seven years from 1997 to 2004. When I first landed the role, people would often remark how “lovely” it must be to work in a bookshop. In many ways, it was: booksellers were motivated and enthusiastic, knew their stuff, and were good company.

But visitors to the shop rarely see below its surface. Working at Waterstones is also physical, complicated, and routinely stressful. The shop relies on booksellers “acting up” – taking on responsibilities above their paygrade in order to keep things going. Senior management are out of touch with this reality – Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt, one of the most successful (and wealthiest) booksellers, has said the company can’t afford to pay the living wage.

I was quickly made children’s bookseller at the Waterstones branch where I worked, a role that involved buying as well as selling books. We stocked the very first copies of Harry Potter based on my orders. Some of these functions have since been located upstairs, but important roles like events, school liaison and social media have since replaced them.  

And when people get promoted, and take on extra responsibilities, they soon find that the extra pay is in no way commensurate with the extra stress. Fifteen years ago, I was embarrassed to tell people what I was being paid after seven years of hard graft at the UK’s foremost bookselling chain.  The tales in Working at Waterstones are painful – and show that little has changed. Stories of low pay, deteriorating mental health, stressful jobs and little material reward are recognisable from the 7 years I spent at the company.

But there’s a piece missing in this jigsaw: the collective voice of the workers. We never talk about Waterstones staff as “workers”. With the book trade, it was always thus: only a tiny fraction of booksellers are members of a union. Not long after HMV took over Waterstones in 1998, I decided it was time to get organised: I did my union rep training, got on my Vespa, and started travelling from store to store, talking to the people who made Waterstones tick.

I found a number of barriers to union organising in Waterstones, some of them more general to retail, others specific to the profession of bookselling. On one level, there was a huge staff turnover because many people either saw their job as a temporary stop gap, or were disappointed with its reality. Importantly, though, many of the Waterstones staff who began with a temporary mindset ended up staying a lot longer than they expected.

On the other end of the scale, the more established staff who saw themselves as “career booksellers” worked their socks off for the company, as if their branches were their own little bookshop. Some of that was a hangover from the “Waterstones Family” philosophy that founder Tim Waterstone nurtured, who saw the staff as integral to the vision and encouraged the idea of booksellers rather than customer assistants. From the start, there was an idea that working for Waterstones was somehow different – despite what your pay slip told you.

This confusing picture made it difficult to organise as a union because many staff members didn’t put themselves in the same category as McDonalds staff or Tesco checkout assistants. Waterstones played on this. But we’re a long way from 1982, when Tim Waterstone began his bookselling empire. The reality is that Waterstones is no different from other companies in the retail sector: the senior management will not concede anything without demands – which come through an active and strong trade union.

The petition may have an effect: it’s certainly a good campaign strategy to publicly shame a company, especially one that obscures a low-pay reality behind a facade of middle class respectability. The petition may even have the short-term effect of forcing James Daunt and other executives to accede in increasing pay across the board. But there needs to be an awareness that even if that does happen, it will only be a temporary fix.

Securing long term solutions to the problem of low pay that is endemic to the retail sector will only come with increased union membership. And when people join a union, they must ensure they play an active role in it, organising with the same energy that the #McStrike and TGI Friday union activists have shown.

There may be many staff in Waterstones who have already joined a union and are trying to get their branches organised. I know, from personal experience, how difficult that is. And campaigning strategies including petitions, stunts and lobbying can play an important role. But without sustained union organising, there will be a gaping hole in attempts to secure long-lasting changes and decent pay. To succeed, workers of Waterstones must unite.

Ben Sellers works for Laura Pidcock, Labour MP for North West Durham and shadow labour minister.

Free trial CSS