Last month, Passional Boutique and Sexploratorium, a Philadelphia sex shop with a reputation for “inclusivity,” laid off its entire staff after they asked the store to recognize their union. Jacobin spoke with one of the workers.
Passional Boutique and Sexploratorium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvnia. (Kyle Goodman)
In January, Passional Boutique and Sexploratorium, a sex shop on Philadelphia’s South Street with a reputation for LGBTQ inclusivity, laid off its entire staff. The layoffs came just over a month after Passional workers asked store owner Kali Morgan to voluntarily recognize their union.
Morgan has announced that she is planning to sell Passional. Former employees say that she told them that she laid them off because the prospective buyer will only “work with their own family members in the store”; the workers say they think the layoffs were a response to their effort to unionize. Last week, Jacobin contributor Sara Wexler spoke with one of the laid-off workers, Greer Turner, about the organizing effort and the layoffs.
What led you and your coworkers to try to organize a union?
We wanted to be able to negotiate with our boss about benefits and conditions as a unit. Like a lot of employers, she was of the mindset, “Come and talk to me about things; if you have an issue, come talk to me.”
But because of the environment that we worked in and because of regular layoffs, there was a lot of staff turnover. It was a small business, so we were all doing things that went beyond retail or beyond working in a store. I was doing some of the social media; another one of my coworkers was doing part of the educational side of the business, as well as working on the floor.
Part of the reason we wanted to unionize was because you would have somebody who worked there and who would do the education, and they might negotiate a raise for that. Then they would leave, and the next person would come in, and [that raise] would [no longer be] in place.
Another reason we wanted to negotiate was that we had [to sign] a noncompete agreement. It was for two years after we left; it banned us from having any sort of store or for-profit workshop business doing any similar sex toy or fantasy or fetish fashion sales within the tristate area or within sixty miles.
We have since been released from that. But one of the reasons we wanted to unionize was because sex education and LGBTQ issues were a big interest for a lot of people who worked there. And because it was part-time, we wanted to use our specific knowledge in this business to be able to make a real living, and we weren’t able to do that.
There would be a slow season every winter when I think employees felt like they had to beg for their jobs or make the case for why they should not be laid off.
Another big thing was that there were regular layoffs every winter at the store. People called it [our employer’s] “winter anxiety.” There would be a slow season for about two months when she would hold these meetings with people, where I think employees felt like they had to beg for their jobs or make the case for why they should not be laid off.
It would be presented as, “We’re going to have performance reviews.” She would meet with people individually, and she would talk about their performance. Then she would lay people off. She would say you can come back in the summer, or you can come back when it’s busier. But I don’t think anyone ever did.
So the part-time working hours weren’t voluntary? People would have worked full-time if they could?
Yeah, absolutely. The most anybody could work was thirty-two hours; I usually worked twenty-five hours across six days a week. If you wanted more hours, somebody had to drop down.
Were there benefits? Did employees get health care?
The only benefit we had was disability insurance. If you missed work for more than two weeks, you could get it. [Morgan] told us she didn’t want to pay for it, but said that in the five years she’d been doing it, nobody had been able to use it.
We did have paid time off. Every forty hours worked equaled one hour of PTO, which was another thing we’d had wanted to change, because nobody worked forty hours a week. So the most you could accrue in a year, if you worked thirty-two hours a week every single week for a full year, was six days off or something like that.
When did you all start talking about a union? How did you go about organizing?
We started talking about it as early as August or September. It took a couple of months before we were like, “Let’s get serious about this.” We knew the winter was coming — things might start happening.
Also, we knew that, for the past five years, Morgan had been wanting to sell the business. The position that we thought the store was in when we started talking about unionizing was that she said she had a buyer but he didn’t want to run the store — he didn’t want to be involved. He wanted it to run exactly as it had been.
Morgan even had conversations with one person about becoming management, and with another person about taking on her job as the general manager. We were worried that, if a new person stepped in, they would take away certain things that we liked about working there — or that, if those things changed, it would not be a tenable workplace anymore.
For example, we had chairs at our registers. We didn’t want somebody to come in and say, “You cannot have chairs. You have to stand.” We didn’t want somebody to come in and be like, “We’re going to pay you minimum wage,” because in Pennsylvania that’s $7.25 and we were all making $16.25.
Also, if the store were to become more profitable, we wanted to be able to negotiate profit sharing. Our [thought was], if the sale is real, we wanted to do something to protect our rights. We didn’t think that we would get fired for it.
We wanted to do something to protect our rights. We didn’t think that we would get fired for it.
Around October is when we really started to get serious. We started by reaching out to a bunch of unions; nobody was getting back to us. [Eventually, I reached out to] the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee [EWOC]. We got connected with Richard Renner, who’s a lawyer in DC — I think he’s retired now, but he specialized in whistleblower and labor stuff. He was like, “You guys can just organize your own union.”
I’d heard that before. But I was like, it seems like a ton of work — it seems really hard. And he said, “No, I’ll help you. You just have to submit certain bylaws. You have to do a financial review,” stuff like that.
So we decided we wanted to start our own union, and we had hopes of organizing our own workplace and then, if other workers on South Street wanted to join, organizing South Street as well. I don’t know if you’re familiar with South Street — it is similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. There are a lot of bars, there’s a lot of drinking, there are a lot of sex stores. There’s also a lot of folk art. It’s this longtime countercultural space that has art galleries, and there are people who are getting crazy drunk.
Also, there are a lot of young people, a lot of queer people, and there’s a lot of grassroots stuff going on. It’s largely populated by small businesses — a lot of vintage shops and crystal stores and stuff like that. Our hope had been that we’ll unionize ourselves, and then maybe if other sex stores or other small-business workers want to join, we could form our own independent union.
I made union cards on my iPad. The lawyer sent me what they needed to include; I printed them out, and we all signed them. From there, we ended up reading a letter at a staff meeting. We took turns; we each read a paragraph. We asked for voluntary recognition. This was December 5.
How did your employer respond to your request to voluntarily recognize your union?
She said that she wasn’t against the idea. She was worried that a new potential owner might not want to deal with a union. The way she said it was not like, “I’m worried about that for me.” She said it as, “You guys might want to think about that. A new owner might not let you unionize.”
Our hope had been that we’ll unionize ourselves, and then maybe if other sex stores or other small-business workers want to join, we could form our own independent union.
She said that she needed time to think about the legal repercussions. We knew that there is a National Labor Relations Board rule that an employer has two weeks to contest a bargaining unit. So we were like, “Yeah, absolutely, think about it.”
What happened next?
It’s January, and we are supposed to have the staff meeting. Morgan says, “I’m not sure about the future of the business,” because the store was not doing super well financially. It was also very hard to tell what the financial situation was, because she would say a lot about money that made us all feel anxious about the business. But then she would buy a lot of product; she would also go on vending trips. She would go to these kink and fetish events all over the country.
Morgan said, “I have two big vending trips in January. Let’s move the staff meeting until after those trips so that I can see how we do financially.” So she moved it, and then she moved it again, and then she moved it another time.
What ended up happening was that, on January 17, myself and one other person went to work. We worked a full shift with the owner. We left the store, and the next day I was supposed to work a half shift. She sent a group text to me and everyone else scheduled for the day that said, “Don’t come in today. The store’s closed.”
We were like, “What’s going on?” And she said, “Problem with the building. I’ll update when I can.” Then she sent a Slack message to everybody that said, “Due to unforeseen circumstances, the store is closed today. I’ll update when I know more.” We were like, this is very weird. It was incredibly unlike her to close the store.
Then at almost 7:00 p.m. that Thursday, January 18, she simultaneously sent a Slack message and an email to everybody. The email basically said, “This is your official notice of layoff. Your final paycheck will be issued on Friday the 24. It’ll include pay from your shifts that were scheduled for this week and accrued PTO.”
I think the layoffs were an attempt by Morgan to say, ‘I’m going to sell my business to you, and don’t worry, you can continue to use very cheap labor.’
Morgan said, “In hopes of an impending sale of inventory and trademarks, I’ll be in the store this week to orient my new potential buyer.” She also said she planned to continue the education part of the store — she said she would continue to hold classes.
She also sent a Slack message titled, “My Resignation.” She said, “I’ve been trying to sell this store. I’m working with a tentative agreement with a buyer who I hope will continue operating our retail space on South Street.” She said the potential buyers said they only work with their own family in the store, and that she was under a strict nondisclosure agreement.
Why do you think you all were laid off?
I think it was because we had announced our intention to unionize, and I think that a potential buyer did not want to deal with a unionized staff. We do not know for sure who this new buyer is. We have a very strong suspicion, and we know that this person has in the past exploited workers and staff. We know that they have gotten in legal trouble and had to pay back wages and back overtime to people who have worked in their stores before.
I think that it was an attempt by Morgan to say, “I’m going to sell my business to you, and don’t worry, you can continue to use very cheap labor.” I think she felt like her choices were: continue to deal with the stress of the store or fire everybody. And she chose to fire everybody.
The non-union-busting thing to do would’ve been to have us help orient new buyers. Or even to have us reapply for our jobs. There was none of that. There was not even an option of reapplying for our jobs.
What have you all been doing since you were laid off?
We’ve all been kind of applying for unemployment. We’ve been trying to figure out our next steps. It’s hard to prove union busting, but I think we are going to pursue some sort of action.
We made an Instagram account as well. We wanted to make a statement about what happened. The store was rooted in community and ideals of inclusion and diversity and respect. We wanted to tell people, “This big part of what you loved about the store, the employees, has been eliminated in an abrupt and unfair way.” We wanted people to know, “This inclusive space that you go to is very much not going to be the same anymore.”
How has the community responded?
The queer community especially has been incredibly supportive. There’s a raffle happening for an org in Philly, and they had stuff donated by Passional that they’re raffling off, and they said they were going to donate half of the proceeds to the staff that got laid off.
There are people who, every time the store posts on Instagram, will be like, ‘Did the employees get their jobs back? What’s happening?’
There have been a lot of people who have commented and said, “I’m not going to shop there.” There are people who, every time the store posts on Instagram, will be like, “Did the employees get their jobs back? What’s happening?” It’s been helpful for all of us to see that. We’ve had a lot of people reach out who have worked with other unions and other organizations, to say, “If you guys need support, if you need help with pursuing a case against this, let us know.”
What is the ideal outcome for you all?
The dream is that we could all continue to work there and do this work that we all genuinely loved — and do it with pay and benefits and job security and with a union. The outcomes we’ve been told are possible include either being reinstated or being given some sort of settlement or back pay. People we’ve talked to have said it’s not going to be a lot of money.
For some people, this has caused a tenuous housing situation. Some people have had to consider moving back in with family or leaving the area. For me and for a lot of other people, the desired outcome at this point is to not have our lives be too derailed or disrupted and to be able to continue living and working in Philly.Original post