Borders War Still Simmering | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Borders War Still Simmering 

Former Borders employee Greg Popek Quit to spread the union's message to other stores in the chain.

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Borders War

Still Simmering

Six months ago 45 staffers at Borders Books & Music in Lincoln Park made history when they became the first employees of a national bookstore chain to vote in a union, Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. No one involved in the campaign expected that Borders would make it easy for them once the vote went through, and so far that appears to be the case.

Contract negotiations are proceeding at a snail's pace. "The talks are going slowly, but I can't say anything about specifics," says Mark Gregory, the Lincoln Park store manager since last October. Employee Chris Grant, who led the union drive and is one of those representing the rank and file at the bargaining table, says the two sides are meeting only every couple of weeks. "It's a common union-busting tactic to stretch out negotiations and get people frustrated," says Grant, who couldn't predict when the two sides would agree on a contract. "We have worked out a new grievance procedure that wasn't in place before," but crucial salary and health-insurance issues have barely been discussed.

In a move that caught some Borders staffers by surprise, Greg Popek, a former Borders employee who helped organize and sustain the unionizing movement, left the Lincoln Park store a couple of weeks ago to become a Local 881 representative. He says he made the switch because he'd worked in retail for nearly 20 years and was ready to do something else. "Now we will have a voice in the union," says Grant. One of Popek's tasks will be spreading the word about the union to other Borders stores in the Chicago area. (Borders stores in Des Moines, Iowa, and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, recently voted to go union, though an effort in Stamford, Connecticut, failed.)

At the Lincoln Park store management appears to be trying to churn the employee roster so that when a contract finally does come up for ratification a mostly new group of staffers won't be inclined to vote for it. "If you're a new employee you're not likely to want to infuriate management," says Grant.

Store manager Gregory confirms that since last October, 20 of the 45 staff who were part of the initial union vote have left the store for one reason or another--a whopping 45 percent turnover in just six months. He says the average turnover for the chain is around 30 percent. One of those who left in February was Tom Swiontek, who worked at the Borders in Schaumburg before moving to the Lincoln Park store. He admits to growing increasingly disenchanted with things there. "And I did not see the situation improving," he says, adding that management "seemed to become more antagonistic" toward the staff after the union vote. "I had a hard time with that."

Grant says he's also been struck by a change in disciplinary actions since the union vote last October. He points to one staffer who allegedly stole a "ten-cent piece of pita bread" from the in-store cafe and was first suspended, then abruptly terminated a few days later. "I've never seen that level of discipline before," he says. Gregory would only confirm that an employee was fired.

How Many Bodies in the Pit?

The Walt Disney Company is known for keeping close tabs on expenses, a policy that has led to a confrontation with the Chicago Federation of Musicians, the union that represents pit musicians in Chicago-area musical-theater productions. At issue is how many musicians Disney must employ for the upcoming engagement of Beauty and the Beast, which begins an open run at the Chicago Theatre next October.

Disney has told the union it wants to employ 19 musicians at the 3,600-seat venue, but the union says Disney should hire 25, the same number now employed in the pit of the Broadway production at the Palace Theatre. Federation president Ed Ward maintains the union has agreements with all the other Loop theater venues specifying that any first national touring production of a Broadway musical running longer than a month must employ the same number of musicians as the original production. Ward sees no reason why Disney should be an exception. "I don't plan on jeopardizing my contacts with the other theaters just to accommodate Disney," he says.

According to Ward's calculations, the touring production of Beauty could gross as much as $1.3 million a week with a capacity crowd at the Chicago Theatre and a $70 top ticket. Putting another six musicians in the pit and giving the show the original Broadway sound would cost Disney an additional $7,200 to $9,000 a week, depending on how many instruments each musician is required to play. Ward says he was told that Disney had originally planned to do the Los Angeles production of Beauty with only 19 musicians; but when Disney chairman Michael Eisner attended a preview and didn't like what he heard from the orchestra pit, the number of musicians was immediately increased to 25. John Petrafesa, the New York-based director of labor relations for Walt Disney Theatricals, didn't return a phone call seeking comment, but Ward says Petrafesa told him Disney will do Beauty in Chicago "with or without the union."

Lyric Quick to Capitalize

Now that Lyric Opera of Chicago owns the space in which it operates, it's becoming clear it intends to maximize the revenue generated from renting the newly renovated theater space. The touring production of Sunset Boulevard is there for 11 weeks this spring, and a touring Phantom of the Opera will have the same slot in 1998.

And for the first time in recent memory, Lyric will have a rent-paying tenant during the Christmas holidays, when the opera company traditionally doesn't perform: a touring production of Annie.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Greg Popek by Jon Randolph.

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