Borders Workers Strike Over Poor Pay & Benefits
On the morning of November 8, amid the clean, tree-lined streets and coffee shops, restaurants, and movie theaters of Ann Arbor, passers-by could see a sight that most of the college town's residents weren't used to: a picket line.
The only thing more surprising than the strike, according to some residents, was its target-Borders Books and Music.
The Borders workers, represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 876, voted 27-1 to strike after rejecting management's contract offer, citing unfair labor practices and failure to negotiate on wage and benefits issues.
After nine months of bargaining, "the contract gave us absolutely nothing," one worker said.
Borders is the second-largest bookstore chain in the country; only two of the company's more than 400 stores nationwide have union representation. Not only is Ann Arbor the site of the flagship Borders store, it is also home to Borders' corporate headquarters.
It is also the first Borders to have ever been struck in the company's 30-year history.
A LIVING WAGE
The average Borders employee earns about $8.50 an hour, with starting wages at $6.50; both figures fall below Ann Arbor's living wage ordinance minimums.
While employees are concerned that Borders wages and benefits are substandard, they are even more concerned that Borders has refused to guarantee to continue current benefits, as management has reserved the right to reduce or eliminate health insurance and the 401(k) program.
The union has filed numerous unfair labor practice (ULP) charges since January 2003, including charges that Borders illegally interrogated, disciplined, and fired workers for supporting their union.
Borders recently agreed to settle some of these charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
Days before the strike, another ULP was filed when members of Borders management were seen illegally surveilling a rally in support of the union.
Workers at the Ann Arbor store decided to organize in the fall of 2002. Some cited the corporatization of the bookstore and a restructuring aimed at de-skilling the workforce as reasons for their discontent; others blamed low pay and unaffordable health care benefits.
Over 93% of the workers voted in favor of the UFCW in December 2002.
In both the union campaign and the strike, they have used the Internet. Employees created a website where Borders workers could go to voice their concerns anonymously and talk about the conditions inside their store, as well as learn about unions and struggles at other Borders stores.
Some believe Borders nationally is a ripe target for the innovative type of organizing campaign that Ann Arbor workers have mounted.
"Borders is the only retail giant in an unorganized sector which had had repeated, spontaneous grassroots [union] campaigns," says one Borders organizer.
Over the last ten years, there have been nearly two dozen spontaneous bouts of grassroots organizing campaigns-campaigns in which workers decided among themselves to organize, without being approached by an outside organizer-at Borders stores nationwide.
Of these, 12 went to a vote and six voted in favor of representation. Three stores won contracts, none of which are still in place. Today, a Minneapolis Borders is the only other store with union representation (but currently without a contract).
A Borders organizer cites the fact that Borders is still a medium-sized corporation and asks, "If retail is ever to be organized, where is that test case going to come from? Not [from corporations like] Wal-Mart-they're too big, too powerful."
Borders' stance is firmly anti-union-an internal pamphlet entitled "Union Awareness Training for Borders Managers" was leaked in 1996 and published on various websites.
In a press release, Hal Brannan, a Borders employee of 18 years, said, "We see a strike as the last option we have to get Borders to adopt a new attitude."
Adds another Borders organizer, "[The strike] isn't just about this store. It's about whether or not workers in an unorganized store, in an unorganized sector, can have a union and a contract. If retail is ever to be organized, then we will have to face these situations."
Sheila McClear is a former Labor Notes intern and a member of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality at the University of Michigan, an affiliate of United Students Against Sweatshops.