Staff at sex shop chain Good Vibrations file to unionize

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 3, 2024
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Staff at Good Vibrations, which has stores in San Francisco and around the Bay Area, including the Palo Alto shop, above, have filed to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 5. Photo: Courtesy UFCW Local 5<br>
Staff at Good Vibrations, which has stores in San Francisco and around the Bay Area, including the Palo Alto shop, above, have filed to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 5. Photo: Courtesy UFCW Local 5

The staff of Good Vibrations, a Bay Area chain of sex-positive adult toy retailers, have filed for a union election. Store employees favoring the move said it came about as a result of the COVID pandemic.

Good Vibrations has three San Francisco locations, in addition to stores in Oakland, Berkeley, Palo Alto, and Santa Cruz. There are between 35 and 40 employees, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 5, which made the announcement December 29. If successful, the employees would join that union.

"The workers were originally motivated to organize after the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated on-the-job safety issues," the union stated in a news release. "The fight has since expanded to center better wages, job security, and improved health and safety practices in all areas of the workplace."

Sam Pollack, a trans woman of queer experience who is a member of the organizing committee and an employee at the Palo Alto location, said that the workers had a few gripes but the real catalyst was "a mismanaged COVID situation, which made a number of us pretty angry" last summer.

"We were frustrated that there was a willful withholding of information from staff," Pollack said in a phone interview. "The general manager at that location chose not to inform staff they'd been exposed to COVID, so as a result it was not possible to get the outbreak under control and also, broadly speaking, there's a culture of unwillingness to allow co-workers and employees to call in sick, and pressure to return before they're feeling well, which also contributed to us not having enough sick time.

"That was the specific inciting incident, a COVID outbreak that led to a lot of people getting sick in a way that was unnecessary," Pollack said, adding the workers are seeking "better wages, better job security, better health and safety practices, as well as accountability of management to treat employees with respect."

The workers started to research which union would be a good fit.

"UFCW 5 looked interesting to us because they organize a lot of people in alternative retail, cannabis workers, as well as more mainstream — grocery store workers and pharmacists are organized under this union. So they seemed to have a lot of connection with the community, which they super do. So yeah, we reached out to Jim and were able to get the ball rolling that way."

Jim Araby is strategic campaigns director for the UFCW 5, which has 30,000 members across the Bay Area. Araby told the B.A.R. that "typically it takes four to six weeks after you file to schedule an election."

"We're expecting the election to take place in mid-to-late February," he said. "We are asking for a mail ballot election rather than an in-person election, since there are eight locations and not very many workers at each location."

In addition to the COVID incident, Araby said that workers felt unsafe after some "run-ins with customers."

"I think the main issue was there were a lot of folks working alone in the shop, not enough staff, and there'd be incidents: run-ins with customers that people felt were unsafe," he said. "The other concern was there was a major COVID outbreak over summer 2023 and many workers felt the employers' response was lacking. Those were the two major issues relative to health and safety — their workers weren't being heard or respected."

Pollack, who has been working for Good Vibrations for almost three years, said unionization will help the mission of the 47-year-old store, which sells sex toys and erotica and launched a masturbate-a-thon in 1995 that continued for several years.

In 2017, the Valencia Street location, which was established in 1977 and is its flagship store, was added to the San Francisco Legacy Business list. Its other locations in San Francisco are downtown on Mission Street and in Lower Nob Hill on Polk Street, which also houses its antique vibrator museum.

Pollack said the unionization effort is meant to help workers.

"When it comes down to it, the organizing effort is meant to get workers more involved in the decision-making process within the company, so we can continue to provide better services and education for our community," Pollack said. "We see ourselves in that lineage of social change and social development that Good Vibrations wants to position itself as a part of."

A different labor group, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, organized Babeland, a similar store in Manhattan, in 2016.

It "secured a historic contract that provided health benefits, wage increases, and added safety and security protocols to protect Babeland's predominately LGBTQ and gender minority workforce," UFCW stated in the news release. Babeland and Good Vibrations share a parent company, Barnaby Ltd.

The Bay Area Reporter reached out to the company through the phone number on the Contact Us webpage of Barnaby Ltd./Good Vibrations. When the B.A.R. did not hear back, the paper reached out to stores individually asking for a manager or press spokesperson. The downtown San Francisco location did not return a call, the Valencia Street location declined to comment, and the Polk Street location took a message but has not called back.

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