Labor Pains | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Labor Pains 

Despite pressure from Borders brass, employees Chris Grant and Greg Popek led the fight to unite.

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Labor Pains

Employees of the Borders Books & Music at 2817 N. Clark voted last week to join Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Inter-national Union, making them the first book-chain workers in the country to join a union. Thousands of bookstore em-ployees nation-wide will be watch-ing to see what happens when these employees sit down in the weeks ahead to iron out their first contract with the company.

The 45 nonmanagerial employees at the store voted 28 to 17 in favor of the union, despite a high-powered effort by corporate brass to quash the drive. "This was a group of people who were really unified and willing to stand up for their rights," says Clint Brown, business agent for Local 881, which represents more than 37,000 workers at regional grocery and drug stores as well as insurance companies.

The workers' decision to push for union representation apparently stemmed from deepening dissatisfaction with low pay and store management. "Here was a company that is growing very quickly, yet Borders seemed to be turning its back on the foundation of the store--their employees," says staffer Chris Grant, who, along with fellow employee Greg Popek, led the drive to organize. Grant maintains that in the weeks before the store opened last November understaffing placed great stress on employees, who were expected to unpack and shelve the store's entire inventory within a short period of time. Borders regional director Loreen Maxfield says these problems were temporary and linked to the opening of the store.

Popek, who previously worked at the Barbara's chain, says bookstore workers are often poorly paid, though he admits Borders offers better hourly rates for new employees than other chain stores. Employees at the Lakeview Borders start at $6.50 an hour. Three months after the store opened staffers were given 4.5 percent raises, which Grant and Popek regarded as a slight reward. "We would read in the Wall Street Journal about Borders posting record profits and then wonder why our paychecks didn't reflect that," Popek says.

New full-time hires earn only about $244 to $260 a week before deductions for taxes and insurance. Borders also recently changed health-care providers, a switch that increased the workers' share of their insurance premiums by a hefty 23 percent (according to Popek, for smokers the increase was 73 percent). But Popek says he was most upset by Borders asking its employees to sign a statement allowing the company to fire any worker "at will" for any reason at any time. Convinced they could do better in a union where workers can only be fired for cause, Popek and Grant filed a petition in late August with the National Labor Relations Board to allow workers to vote on the union. Almost immediately Borders swung into high gear to stop the organizing effort. Popek says executives tried to convince them that the company had their best interests in mind and that the union would ultimately be the wrong way to go. "They obviously were trying to wear us down," says Popek. The company also retained an attorney from the law firm of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman to counsel managers in their dealings with the union organizers.

The company handed out the union's annual financial report, which showed that last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit entered a $12.4 million judgment against the union on behalf of 641 former members. The workers had sued the union, charging that it had entered into an agreement that allowed a Kansas meat-packing firm to shut one plant while keeping several others open. The plant shutdown eliminated their jobs, and the factory later reopened with nonunion help. The union claimed there was no agreement, but, according to Borders, it nevertheless had to borrow $15 million to pay the 641 workers back wages and interest.

About a week before the union vote, the store's manager suddenly accepted a job at the company's headquarters in Ann Arbor. She was replaced by Mark Gregory, general manager of the Borders in Deerfield. Both Grant and Popek say Gregory is known for his employee-relations skills. "He is well liked," says Popek.

On the final Sunday before the vote, Borders CEO Richard Flanagan flew in for a last-ditch effort to convince workers not to join the union. "Flanagan talked about how the company had hired a compensation analyst to review wages and about how the company was reviewing its stock option plan," says Grant. Flanagan also had a chart comparing Borders workers with Osco Drug employees, who are represented by Local 881. The chart showed Borders employees started at $1.05 an hour higher than Osco workers and received more vacation and personal days. But in the end, nothing Borders did was enough.

With the vote going in favor of the union, the Borders staff now faces an even tougher battle to negotiate a contract. Popek says Borders management has made it clear that it intends to give up nothing during what may turn into protracted discussions. Any concessions the chain makes at its Lakeview store could provoke successful unionizing efforts at its other stores. Borders could try to drag out the talks and force a strike, which might lead to a break in the union ranks. "We hope Borders executives will listen, but it remains to be seen how easy the negotiations will be," says Local 881's Brown, who concedes that the union may face a hard future in a shop with high employee turnover. Popek says the staff are aiming for a three-year contract that promises "livable" wage increases. In exchange for union representation, each employee will pay union dues of between $16 and $20 a month. In the meantime, Borders continues to expand its bookstore empire. Maxfield says the chain has 10 stores in the Chicago area, "just shy" of 150 nationwide, and 40 more are planned for next year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chris Grant and Greg Popek photo by Chip Williams.

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