As preparations for Wesleyan’s new bookstore near completion, the hiring practices of the store’s managing company, R.J. Julia Booksellers, have come into question. Current employees and students have voiced concerns on unemployment, lower wages, and enacting a specific “R.J. Julia Experience” that some have argued interviewers for the company presented as racially and socioeconomically coded.
Last November, the University announced that it would be moving its bookstore to Main Street in an effort to integrate Wesleyan with the larger Middletown community. Employees of the Broad Street Books, currently managed by Follett, were blindsided, and most found out about the move through the news in The Argus or the Hartford Courant.
The employees were originally assured that they would be given jobs at the new bookstore. All workers were offered interviews, and 20 employees accepted. As of now, three Broad Street Books employees have been hired by the new R.J. Julia branch. However, a current Broad Street Books employee, Sam*, who underwent the interview process and agreed to speak with The Argus under the condition of anonymity, recounted that the interviewer talked at length about an “R.J. Julia Experience.”
“We were told we should be ready for what they call the ‘R.J. Julia Experience,’” Sam said. “I was told, ‘Well, we want to offer a certain aesthetic to the bookstore.’ I was also told, ‘Well, we want to know that we’re hiring people who are prepared to give the R.J. Julia experience. We are looking for people to give a certain aesthetic to the bookstore.’”
What exactly constituted this experience was unclear, though the employees speculated on its discriminatory and racialized nature through admissions and euphemisms from the interviewer. After their interviews, employees had to wait months before they knew whether or not they had received the jobs. According to Sam, employees were told to tell the public that everything was fine, and that it has been a smooth transition.
“The issue was that a month or two went by with no news,” said Sam. “And we were like, we are entitled to know what’s going to be and if we’re going to have the job or not have the job.”
Additionally, Sam recounted that their R.J. Julia interviewer was not open to critique, even as a newcomer to the community. Wesleyan’s United Student-Labor Action Coalition, USLAC, echoed this sentiment in that there is an inclusive and diverse Wesleyan experience.
“When they interviewed me, they asked me about Wesleyan society and I said ‘It’s about inclusion. About everything. Even things that haven’t been invented yet,’” Sam said. “And she goes, ‘Oh really, Madison [Conn., where the other R.J. Julia bookstore is located] is as white as it gets. That’s news.’ And I was like, ‘we get a little bit of everything.’ And she goes, ‘interesting.’”
The employees eventually received word regarding their hiring positions and many were not offered jobs. The three who accepted positions were offered either equal or higher salaries while the rest were offered minimum wage or lower than what they currently receive at Broad Street.
“There are people who have been there five years and have been offered the minimum [wage],” Sam said. “And also, an employee that I know of…[who] orders books… [and] knows everything that has to be done, she was offered the minimum after three interviews.”
Alec Shea ’18, Communications Director for USLAC, talked about the organization’s demands released in a press release. The first one included offering jobs to all the employees, even if they choose not to take them.
“The people who are currently doing jobs in their community should be able to get their jobs back,” said Shea. “Some people are so embittered by this process, they’ve been so mistreated by R.J. Julia that they’ve already left. So the claim that…they don’t have space for anyone, well, a lot of people are already gone.”
The second demand regards the wages of the workers, in that they should receive higher or equal salaries.
“If you’re not offering people the same salary, you’re going to give them reason to leave,” Shea said. “I don’t know how many people at Wesleyan would go through a months-long interview process for a job that pays the minimum wage…. If you want to get a minimum wage job, they’re out there.”
The third demand regarded increased transparency with R.J. Julia’s hiring process.
“The biggest complaint from the workers is that they had, for a long time, until there was student pressure, no idea what this process was going to look like,” Shea said. “Jobs are the center of people’s lives, the center of people’s survival. And the fact that people had no idea what their future was going to look like, in terms of the thing that provides them what they need to live, that’s something all students here should be against.”
Before a pre-planned interview with The Argus, the office of the President in South College released a statement from the University’s Vice President for Finance and Administration Nathan Peters. The Argus had indicated a desire to discuss the ongoing tensions between current Broad Street Books employees and the incoming R.J. Julia team, and Manager of Media & Public Relations Lauren Rubenstein delegated the response to Peters in lieu of President Roth. Roth commented tangentially on the problems of labor relations with institutions of higher learning in a market economy, but not specifically on R.J. Julia.
The statement describes R.J. Julia receiving hundreds of applications from the Middletown community, in addition to offering interviews to all current Broad Street employees.
“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,” the statement from Peters reads. “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.”
In response to the statement, Shea and USLAC denounced the legalities and technicalities of its wording. In particular, Shea commented on the claim that all employees hired were given the same or slightly higher salaries.
“The claim that everyone that has been hired has been hired at the same or a slightly higher salary, that doesn’t address the fact that people who have chosen not to take these jobs were offered significantly lower salaries,” Shea said. “They were offered minimum wage salaries, so that seems like a distortion. It’s technically true, but doesn’t cover the whole story.”
Similarly, Shea responded to the the fact that all employees were offered interviews, stating that this was not equivalent to a job offer and was unsatisfactory.
“The idea that giving someone an interview is giving them a fair shot at the job is inaccurate when you’re offering someone a lot less money,” Shea said. “Frankly, the fact that R.J. Julia feels like distorting the facts like this is interesting, because it shows that they’ve been planning this. It’s a concerted effort. It’s not coming out of the blue.”
Shea also emphasized the lack of experience that R.J. Julia has had with textbook sales, as they currently run an independent bookstore in Madison, Conn. and another in the Hamptons on Long Island. He said that if R.J. Julia were to hire the current Broad Street employees, this would solve that problem.
“I’d like to emphasize the fact that R.J. Julia has never sold textbooks before…. It’s an incredibly specific thing,” Shea said. “There’s a whole system in a place…and so for them to say, our workers might not be suited for it. I’d be a lot more worried that they’re not ready to take that on. The haphazard way they’ve handled the employment of the workers shouldn’t give anyone confidence that they’re prepared for the task of selling textbooks to students.”
In response to the idea of an “R.J. Julia experience,” Shea emphasized that the University also has a unique set of values that must be taken into consideration, one that the new bookstore’s hiring practices do not reflect.
“President Roth and many other administrators like to talk about a standard for Wesleyan’s community that includes more than just students and faculty,” Shea said. “The whole reason for this move is that they want to integrate Wesleyan more with downtown Middletown, but it’s not real integration if you’re getting rid of local people because they don’t want to accept a pay cut. It’s not real integration if you’re basing your new place on paying people lower wages, on treating them like they’re not members of this community.”
He also stated that the student body should encourage the administration to hold R.J. Julia accountable.
“I know President Roth and this administration would hold itself to a higher standard for affairs on campus,” Shea said. “But the fact that they’re using the off-campus nature of this bookstore as an excuse is deeply disheartening and should concern every Wesleyan student, because what they do off-campus they’re going to do on campus next.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of current Broad Street Books employees.
The Argus is in the process of receiving a comment from employees at R.J. Julia.