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What’s going on at the U of C bookstore? Worker statement in response to the VP Finance and Services

By now, we’ve all heard it — the University of Calgary is planning on privatizing its bookstore. After a storm of criticism since the news broke, U of C Vice-President Finance and Services Linda Dalgetty released a statement regarding the bookstore in UToday, which she says was meant to clarify what the university is doing. 

In her statement, she cherry-picks information and provides only half of the truth regarding the operation of the bookstore. In the spirit of debunking misinformation and keeping the public informed, we as bookstore staff put together this response to Dalgetty’s letter. We wanted to look at her claims, using her own words and analyse whether she’s telling the U of C community the truth.

Claim: “We are not planning to sell the university bookstore. We are considering an operational model that uses an outside company to manage the bookstore operations, under to oversight of the university.”

This is the baseline for Dalgetty’s entire argument. But it isn’t really a claim at all — it’s just verbal gymnastics to obscure what the very simple truth is. That truth is that Linda Dalgetty and Shane Royal have no interest in running a bookstore on campus, and were aggressively pursuing a proposal without informing students, staff or academics. Now they’ve been caught, and they’re trying to cover themselves. What’s the difference between selling it off, or contracting it out? These are just different ways of describing the same thing.

Claim: “Over the last five years, sales revenue from the bookstore has decreased by approximately eight per cent, per year. The decreased revenue is not sufficient to fund the operational and capital expenditures required to maintain the current operational model of the bookstore.” 

While annual revenue is decreasing across the industry, Dalgetty intentionally leaves out the fact that costs have also been decreasing. This includes the unfortunate layoffs that cut full-time bookstore staff in half over the last few years, but also in changes to the ways it has operated historically. Leaving this out is intentionally misleading. 

Claim: “While it’s not private, the bookstore operates in the same manner as a private business.”

The bookstore has operated as a service since its creation. We do not choose the textbooks titles that we carry each semester, and we are price takers from the publishers. We aim to cover the costs of operating on each textbook that we sell, and, most importantly, we do not make profit from student course material. This is not how a private business normally operates, and it has been a question we have repeatedly raised with Dalgetty’s team over the last few years. 

The bookstore returns all revenue above operating costs to the university. So what savings could have been collected to cover capital expenditures, such as the bookstore renovation that occurred in 2018? Not mentioned in her statement is the fact the bookstore still pays rent for the full sales floor space from before the renovation, even though it was intentionally shrunk by more than one quarter during the renovation in order to lower our costs. How many private businesses pay rent on a space they don’t operate in? And why is the university about to give away a newly-renovated space to a private American corporation?

Claim: “We will not be closing the main campus bookstore or the medical bookstore located at our Foothills Campus.” 

While Dalgetty can say “we” will not be closing either of the bookstore locations, if the bookstore truly isn’t profitable, as they claim, how can they force a private business to run it? If a private company wants to run the bookstore for profit, then that makes Dalgetty’s claims about revenue problems less believable.

This is also about more than closure. The medical bookstore is a community hub for students and staff, and Follett isn’t interested in making a community hub. They’re interested in extracting the maximum amount of profit possible from students for their American owners.

Claim: The staff impact will be on existing staff and “several limited, part-time positions at the start of fall and winter semester to meet increased demand.” 

This line, in particular, shows that Dalgetty has not done her research on how the bookstore operates, and is just trying to hand-wave away its workers. Throughout the fall and winter semesters, we employ over 20 part-time staff, most of which are students. During the high demand periods at the start of the fall and winter semesters, this briefly increases to over 50 students during the busiest weeks. A little bit more than “several” positions!

Claim: “I can assure you, that should we choose a third-party operational model, the retail markup of textbooks will be the same as the current markup. This would be a binding provision embedded in the legal contract.” 

Why has none of the proposal been made available to either the Students’ Union, the students or the academics who would be most affected by this change? Is this a provision that Follett has accepted at other institutions? In the Calgary Herald article that was published April 11, it is claimed that students at other Follett run bookstores have seen supplies considerably marked up. Will Follett have the right to renegotiate margins during the contract term? Will Follett be paying the same occupancy rates? Will Follett be running the same aid programs for low income students?

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing any of this, because the process has not been transparent. That’s par for the course with Follett contracts. We got our hands on a Follett privatization contract from another Canadian university, and there are whole pages that are redacted. 

Claim: “Community feedback is very important. As part of our broader consultation process, we will be launching a survey on April 19, 2021 to better understand what the community values most in their bookstore experiences. I encourage you to complete the survey.” 

The University Bookstore ran a student engagement survey in March of this year, before any rumors regarding the proposed sale of the bookstore began. Why has Dalgetty not asked for any of this survey information so far? We already know what people value at the bookstore, and they aren’t asking for a for-profit American company to come take over. This new survey that Dalgetty is promoting is a PR exercise, and not something that we should trust.

By their actions — and more importantly inactions — Linda Dalgetty and Shane Royal have made it very clear that they have never had an interest in running a bookstore on campus, and are committed to privatization, even when it doesn’t make sense for the university. As the portfolio holders of ancillary services on campus, why do they seem so intent outsourcing the services that impact student success and welfare?

The fact is that privatization will be bad for everyone at the university. It will be bad for students, who will see their textbook money shipped out into the bank accounts of a for-profit corporation. It will be bad for workers, who can expect wage cuts and a drop in stability. And it will be bad for other staff as well, who will need to rely on the services of a faraway corporation to get essential university business done. The only ones who stand to benefit from this decision are Follett’s corporate executives. The rest of us? Well we have to fight if we want to keep our bookstore, and our university, from the hands of profiteers. Go to https://aupe.org/SaveUofC to get involved, or just go speak to the workers at your U of C bookstore.

Anonymous Workers at the U of C bookstore

Letters to the Editor published in the Gauntlet‘s opinion section do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board. The Gauntlet retains the right to edit submissions for brevity and clarity.

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