Uptown Borders: Bound To A Labor Agreement

More than two years after voting to unionize, workers at the Borders bookstore in Uptown finally approved a labor contract last week. The vote to approve the two-year agreement was nine to five in favor, with six workers failing to cast a ballot.

The store becomes just the second outlet in the chain to operate under a collective bargaining agreement. Workers at the flagship Ann Arbor, Michigan, store agreed to a union contract in January after a nearly two-month strike.

Supporters of the agreement say that the chief benefit of the contract is that it provides job security. "There can be a lot of change in a company like Borders as it tries to make more profits," says Montana Johnson, who's worked at the Uptown store for more than a year.

Union advocates also point to some improvements in personnel policies. For instance, there will now be an organized grievance process through which employees can take any complaints about working conditions. In addition, a new employee-management committee has been set up that will allow workers to contribute ideas on how the store can be run more effectively.

Bernie Hesse, an organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, argues that the labor drive pressured Borders to make other changes throughout the chain. For instance, part-time workers were recently allowed to enroll in the company's health insurance plan. "We'll take credit for nudging them to change the whole corporate culture on that," says Hesse. He also notes that the contract makes any past pay raises legally binding. "The company can't withdraw it, which they've done in the past," Hesse says.

Borders employees initially voted to join Local 789 in October of 2002, but negotiating a contract proved to be an arduous, frustrating process. Borders was unwilling to budge on most major issues, such as benefits and wages, and months often went by without any meetings between the two sides. The vast majority of workers who endorsed collective bargaining have since moved on to other jobs.

The two most vocal supporters of the effort initially, Holly Krig and Jason Evans, both left the store earlier this year. Just hours after Krig quit, workers found a pamphlet left anonymously in their mailboxes informing them how to decertify the union. "It was a huge slap in the face to all the work that Holly had done," says Erin Dorbin, who's worked at the Uptown store for a little over a year. Dorbin believes the heavy-handed move backfired. "I think for supporters it really pushed us into action," she says.

After 25 months, there is the remaining question of whether the contract will signal a tipping point. So far Local 789 has been unsuccessful in attempting to push the organizing drive to other bookstores in the Twin Cities; the union is hoping that the Uptown Borders labor agreement will jump-start that effort. "We're going to use this as a template for further organizing," says Hesse. "We want to stir it up over the holidays."

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