Two weeks ago, USLAC released a statement highlighting unfair hiring practices by management at RJ Julia Booksellers, the managing company of Wesleyan’s new book store, which is scheduled to open later this year. Specifically, USLAC brought attention to workers being promised interviews at the new bookstore and having to wait months for an interview. According to the statement, several nonwhite employees were told that they didn’t fit the “RJ Julia Experience.”
USLAC made three public demands of RJ Julia and the Wesleyan administration in response to these accounts:
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.
Monday afternoon, a delegation of students voiced their concerns to the RJ Julia general manager outside of North College after a meeting between two students and the general manager was interrupted by a fire alarm.
Prior to Monday’s action, USLAC members began collecting signatures on a petition that reiterated the previous demands USLAC made in their public statement on the bookstore’s hiring practices. The petition says that bookstore workers “serve an integral role in this campus community, and we expect them to be treated with respect by our fellow students, our administrators, and you, their new bosses.” It noticeably differs from USLAC’s initial statement in that it doesn’t mention a possible future boycott of the store if the demands are not met. By Monday afternoon, the petition had received over 550 signatures.
Emma Rose Borzekowski ’19 and Dennis White ’19 participated in a scheduled meeting at 3:50PM with RJ Julia General Manager Lori Fazio and Valerie Nye, who works in Wesleyan’s finance office. The meeting was intended to be an opportunity to voice concerns about unfair hiring practices directly to RJ Julia management.
In the meeting, Lori Fazio reportedly welcomed student input but qualified with disappointment that only 4 students had shown up to an open meeting with management on the direction of the bookstore that was held in February. This meeting, of course, was before public accounts of RJ Julia’s hiring practices with respect to current Broad Street Books employees were available.
Also in the meeting, RJ Julia management reportedly continued stressing the fact that the company was “woman-owned” and that the cafe that the bookstore would be partnering with will be “diversity-owned.” The general manager in the latter case was likely referring to the news that former NBA player Ray Allen and his wife Shannon Allen (who was born in Middletown) would be opening a restaurant in the bookstore space, extending their grown brand past the original Miami location.
New information about hiring practices did arise in the meeting as well. According to sources, when RJ Julia contacted Broad Street Books for a contact list of all their employees, they did not receive a list from general management, but rather received an unofficial and incomplete list from a different employee. At least one worker was not included on this list and had to contact RJ Julia separately for an interview.
During the interview stage of the hiring process, Broad Street employees were asked whether or not they made minimum wage. To one USLAC member, this seemed unconventional, as wage negotiations and conversations typically occur after a job offer is made. One worker, during the interview process, requested a higher wage than they were currently earning and was then not hired as a result.
The meeting only lasted around ten minutes, as the North College fire alarm went off, causing the building to evacuate.
A delegation of around 40 students were stationed outside North College. Signs and banners displayed USLAC’s demands, messages of solidarity with bookstore workers, and general calls for non-discriminatory hiring practices and the endorsement of a living wage. According to sources, there were current Broad Street Books employees in attendance.
Lori Fazio, RJ Julia’s General Manager, stayed back to hear several other student demonstrators’ concerns before eventually departing.
After the demonstration, I spoke to Alec Shea ’18, who provided a statement on what the day’s events meant for USLAC and their possible implications for future actions:
First of all, USLAC is very pleased that RJ Julia elected to meet with representatives of students and workers in the first place. We’re a little less pleased that they chose to leave as soon as the fire alarm went off in North College. We wish they would have stayed for a longer conversation. We’re a little more disappointed that they received comments from students and didn’t really give us an affirmative response. Students came up and talked about their concerns about wages, fair hiring, and making sure that all bookstore workers are rehired, and they didn’t really hear back from RJ Julia. We just got a smile and a nod.
We’re also disturbed by the fact that, in the meeting, RJ Julia seemed to shrug off accusations against it on the grounds that it’s “woman and diversity owned.” We don’t think that’s an adequate standard. We don’t think that’s an excuse to pay people poorly. We think every business operating on campus or in association with Wesleyan needs to be paying workers fairly and justly.
Overall, this showed that students are unified and have resolve in their opposition to the stuff RJ Julia has been doing. The number of students that showed up was far larger than we expected. The mobilization was great. We think we got a lot of people interested who weren’t before…I think you have an indication that this is going to intensify as time goes on.
Here are more photos from the demonstration: