The story of the union drives sweeping Indigo stores

Indigo, which owns stores under the banners Chapters, Coles, Indigospirit, and The Book Company, is Canada’s largest bookstore chain. The company’s Chapters Woodbridge location, shown here, voted to unionize with UFCW on January 8. Photo via Ragavi Vasanthakumar.

For Indigo workers at Missisauga’s Square One mall, it was “The Bathroom Issue” that started their path to unionization.

“All of a sudden we were given extra duties in the store without any extra PPE,” Jennifer, a worker at the Canadian bookstore chain tells me, explaining what happened when the first wave of workers returned to work in April after the initial COVID-19 shutdown. (The workers who agreed to be interviewed asked that I use only their first name.)

Employees were told that they needed to constantly sanitize the store and clean the bathrooms themselves multiple times throughout the day. Indigo didn’t enforce any sort of mask policy. A designated cleaner had been cleaning the store months earlier, but management decided to cut custodial services before the pandemic because the store had not hit its stretch target for sales.

“Their plan was to use employees, without any proper discussion, and force them to do the work,” Jennifer explains.

"Instead of talking with us, Indigo decided to tell people to get with the program or leave the company.”

That’s when the workers in the store came together and decided to sign a petition explaining to management that the extra duties – without extra pay or incentives – were unacceptable. They passed the petition around the office and eventually presented it to management.

“It was our first introduction to organizing the store,” Jennifer says. “But instead of talking with us, Indigo decided to tell people to get with the program or leave the company.”

Indigo made it clear that they wouldn’t take employee concerns seriously – at least as long as management held all the power. To shift that power, workers at Indigo Square One began organizing. Many of them had connections to local activist organizations and unions. They reached out to their coworkers, and to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

“We had to be swift and intentional in the way we organized,” Jennifer recalls. “Indigo has a history of union busting.” Jennifer explains how workers at a warehouse that Indigo uses attempted to unionize, at which point executive management showed up on site to convince workers not to join the union. Several other workers I spoke to also shared stories of management intimidating them for suspected organizing.

Knowing the types of lies management may spread during an organizing campaign, the first priority for the workers was busting myths. They took guidance from UFCW and set up an Instagram account where they debunked common disinformation about unions. They also spoke to workers who had concerns about the process of unionization, and answered their questions honestly.

Their posts caught the attention of workers at some of Indigo’s other 200-plus Canadian stores. Over the past three months, four Indigo stores in three provinces have voted in favour of unionization. Many were dealing with the same issues that workers at Square One had.

“We had to be swift and intentional in the way we organized,” Jennifer recalls. “Indigo has a history of union busting.”

Sabrina, a worker at the Chapters Woodbridge location, was ready to quit to make her point to management. She’d been working for Indigo for about a year, and in that time she’d begun to notice an imbalance of power within the store.

“Performance evaluations started coming in,” she tells me. “A number of us did not receive good evaluations. We felt that they were unfair. It had nothing to do with our performance.”

Within a three-month span, two workers in the store were given write ups from management, ostensibly as a means of engaging in progressive discipline. Writing workers up for small infractions is a management tactic that can be used to keep workers precarious – by creating a paper trail of disciplinary measures, managers can fire workers without the company being liable for any sort of severance or notice. The first worker was written up when they spoke up for their coworkers. Another was told that they weren’t smiling enough.

When the regular store survey – meant to give employees a chance to provide feedback for their managers – came through, the Woodbridge workers made their opinions known. The results of the survey were enough of an outlier that Indigo corporate sent in a team to conduct focus groups. The workers were able to voice their frustrations directly to the people with the power to make sweeping changes to management structure. Workers were promised things would get better.

Nothing changed.

That’s when Sabrina reached out to Greg, a veteran worker at the Woodbridge location, and told him that she planned to quit. Greg told her to wait. He explained that quitting wouldn’t matter to Indigo, and that there were other options. He asked her if she’d seen what had happened at Square One.

The first worker was written up when they spoke up for their coworkers. Another was told that they weren’t smiling enough.

This was the general blueprint for unionization at each store. The workers I talk to explain that they had struggled with the power imbalance within their stores, then reached out to Square One for advice. A worker representative, who preferred to remain unnamed, from the Chapters Pinetree Village location in Coquitlam explains to me that the company was looking to cut corners when workers returned after the initial pandemic shutdown. At Indigo Place Montréal Trust, workers decided that the management structure was set up in a way that “didn’t provide a positive experience for employees,” a worker representative tells me.

It’s important to note that everyone I talk to emphasizes that they don’t hate their jobs. In fact, they love working for Indigo. They simply feel that the management and disciplinary structures are unfair and lack accountability.

“The main reason that we ended up looking for unionization is that we wanted to see systemic changes at Indigo,” Greg, a 10-year veteran of Chapters Woodbridge, explains. “A lot of us throughout the years have felt that the performance management and disciplinary system that they have is not used in a fair manner. It’s used to punish people that managers don’t like or that they have personal issues with.”

Multiple workers also explain to me that the image that Indigo portrays of itself clashes with the way it treats its employees. Jennifer points out to me that her store advertised its support for Black Lives Matter last summer to foster a progressive image, but that the way it treats its workers tells a different story. “[Indigo] is always telling us that we’re the backbone of the store, that we’re the ones driving the profits, we’re the ones that are driving the vision of the store,” she says, “and yet your most vulnerable employees are getting the least protections in your store.”

In March 2020, Indigo laid off 5,200 employees, about 75 per cent of its workforce, and then hired back 545 workers in April 2020. For the workers who weren’t laid off, the pandemic kept many of them from simply quitting. In many retail environments, poor treatment will lead workers to leave the store rather than trying to fight back. Several of the workers I speak to explain that many people view retail work as inherently low-paid with poor working conditions. Some of these workers tell me they consider their time in retail temporary, so they lack a vested interest in long-term changes. But because jobs were scarce during COVID, workers felt compelled to fight for better working conditions.

“[Indigo] is always telling us that we’re the backbone of the store, that we’re the ones driving the profits, we’re the ones that are driving the vision of the store, and yet your most vulnerable employees are getting the least protections in your store.”

“The pandemic made it easier for us to organize because of the lockdown in Ontario,” Sabrina tells me. Since everybody was home anyway, it was easy to reach out on social media and create a plan before returning to the store, she explains.

When I ask Jennifer if she felt that the pandemic helped their organizing effort, she says that it did. But for her, the eventual successful union vote came down to public support. Community organizations reposted the campaign’s social media posts, attended their informational pickets, and even showed up to the stores. Several high-profile individuals from the area shared their support via posts and videos, including Olivia Chow, the former Member of Parliament for Trinity-Spadina and widow of Jack Layton. The local teacher’s union visited the store and answered questions from workers about what their union meant to them. Felipe Pareja, vice-president of the Peel Elementary Teachers’ Local, recommended that teachers shop exclusively at unionized Indigo locations.

The Pinetree Village location received similar community support from high-profile figures like former MP and House Leader for the NDP Libby Davies and the current leader of the federal NDP Jagmeet Singh.

“It really helps disarm the argument that unionized stores can’t be profitable,” Jennifer says. “Obviously the community supports the wellbeing of workers.”

Square One officially voted to unionize on September 22, 2020. In less than a month, two more stores followed: Indigo Place Montréal Trust, and Chapters Pinetree Village in Coquitlam, British Columbia. Finally, Chapters Woodbridge voted to unionize on January 8, 2021. 

“It really helps disarm the argument that unionized stores can’t be profitable. Obviously the community supports the wellbeing of workers.”

Since the successful campaigns, Indigo has already promised 10 hours of paid sick leave, new wage increases based on time with the company, increases to quarterly incentives and the employee discount, and updates to the employee benefit program.

Many of these programs were already set to be put in place before Indigo canceled them as a result of the pandemic. Still, it’s a start. The stores are now in the collective bargaining phase, crafting contracts that help address the issues of the employees.

There is no denying that the pandemic has posed challenges for labour organizers, with many conversations that would have taken place face-to-face now happening over Zoom, Whatsapp, and social media. But Indigo workers played the pandemic to their advantage – leveraging social media to fight for lasting changes. The actions of Indigo management gave the workers limited options for improving their situation, and the pandemic narrowed those options further. But by organizing themselves and relying on community support, they were able to shift some measure of power back to themselves.

Everyone deserves dignity at work. If companies refuse to recognize that, they can expect more campaigns in the future.

Brett Nelson is a freelance writer and volunteer from Vancouver Island. His work has appeared in Canadian Dimension, Our Times, and Current Affairs.