Borders Skirmishes

Booksellers make lousy money--and book chains want to keep it that way

At the Uptown Borders bookstore, employee relations suddenly count for a lot. The day after workers there announced they were seeking union representation, a box of candy and three cases of pop materialized in the break room. Within a week, the company's regional manager appeared in Minneapolis to chat up employees about their jobs and offer assistance with any workplace problems. Holly Krig, a two-year employee of the store and union supporter, wonders what will be next. "Maybe a pony?" she speculates. "Steaks?"

On October 18, Krig and 19 other employees will vote on whether to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789. If the labor drive is successful, the Uptown store will become the only unionized Borders in the country. Local 789 hopes to spread the union drive to other local branches of the bookstore as well. Last week a union organizer met with Borders employees at the Richfield and Minnetonka locations.

Despite its current union-free state, the book behemoth is no stranger to labor disputes. Since 1996, 11 Borders stores have held union elections, and in four instances workers have voted for outside representation. All four of those unions expired, however, after employee interest faded and the unions voluntarily withdrew. The company has developed a reputation for being fiercely antagonistic toward organized labor, relying on the counsel of Jackson Lewis, one of the premier union-busting law firms in the country. "I think [Borders is] extremely hostile," says Bernie Hesse, an organizer with Local 789. "They resorted to firings and discipline in other stores."

Booksellers of the world, unite: Borders Uptown staffers Jason Evans, Holly Krig, and Pete Fergus
Tony Nelson
Booksellers of the world, unite: Borders Uptown staffers Jason Evans, Holly Krig, and Pete Fergus

The most notorious example occurred in 1996. Miriam Fried, a Borders employee who had helped lead a union drive in Philadelphia, was terminated shortly after the failed election. Protests were held across the country on Fried's behalf, and her cause was trumpeted in the Nation. Fried filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to get her job back, but it was ultimately rejected.

The Uptown workers say they expect a vigorous propaganda campaign by Borders over the next month to convince them that union representation is not in their best interest. "We intend to be relentless," says Krig. "We realize that Borders doesn't have a history of being friendly with unions. We're prepared for that reality."

Anne Roman, corporate affairs counsel for the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based book chain, maintains that the company will simply present employees with information and let them make up their own minds. "We believe our employees are intelligent individuals," Roman says. "Obviously they have a right to explore whether they think a union is in their best interest. By that same token we have a right to express that we don't think a union is the best path to meeting employee needs."

If the Borders employees are successful in forcing union representation, it would be a rare triumph for organized retail workers. For more than a year, Local 789 has been seeking to organize such employees through its "You Are Worth More" campaign. Yet despite radio advertisements, a Web site, and numerous literature drops at retail outlets, the Uptown Borders store is the first to seek representation.

Union organizer Hesse points out that Minnesota grocery store employees--the only segment of the retail industry that is heavily unionized--make an average wage of $13 an hour. "Why is it so radical for somebody to work in retail and earn a living wage?" he asks rhetorically. "I honestly am just puzzled by that."

Jason Evans, another Borders employee who supports the union, believes that the Uptown campaign, if successful, could have broader ramifications for retail workers. He hopes to spread the union drive to other Borders stores in the Twin Cities and beyond. "We're not looking for 30 cents an hour and we'll be pleased," he maintains. "This is something much grander. I guess we're ideologues."

As in most labor disputes, one source of the employees' discontent is wages. According to workers, salaries range roughly from $7 to $9.50 an hour. Because there is a surfeit of young people with liberal-arts degrees willing to sacrifice income for the opportunity to work around books, Borders has no shortage of applicants. "People are clamoring for our jobs," says Simone Menier, another Uptown employee. "We hand out several applications a day." Workers bitterly note that meanwhile, Borders chief executive officer Gregory Josefowicz received a salary of more than $1.1 million last year, and an additional $1 million in stock options.

The Uptown employees also worry about job security. They point to a company-wide restructuring at Borders in February 2001 that eliminated the position of assistant manager and made many of those employees into supervisors at lower salaries. That restructuring is the object of a class-action lawsuit against Borders in California. "At any time something like that could happen again, and we have no way to prevent it," argues Krig. "There's just no recourse at all."

Other recent decisions by the corporation have also fueled workers' discontent. They point to Borders' embrace of "category management," in which publishing houses pay a premium for the right to dictate where, and how prominently, their titles are featured in each store. Which means that those end-cap displays and new-release tables are more and more a matter of bought-and-paid-for publicity, and less and less a reflection of the community or the personality of the store's staff. Small wonder Borders' Uptown employees fear they're becoming mere cogs in a bookselling empire.

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