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Borders Belabored

The Nation, March 2, 1996

Borders, the bookstore chain that's fast eclipsing its national competition, likes to say its well-read employees are its biggest asset. Lately, those employees are insisting that the company prove it.

In December, booksellers at the Des Moines, Iowa, Borders store voted 20 to 16 to join Local 431 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Galvanized by this and other successes nationwide, Borders employees in Stamford, Connecticut, will decide on January 28 whether to join the escalating movement to unionize.

Launched in 1971 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Borders Group Inc. -- which has since gobbled up Waldenbooks, Brentano's and Planet Music -- makes much of its progressive roots and continuing liberal commitment.

It supports the N.E.A. and NPR, gives discounts to nonprofits and teachers, and boasts of its contributions to "the local community." But when it comes to its 8,000 workers, the company's gestures ring hollow.

Over the past year, the chain's profits have increased by an estimated 53 percent, and forty new stores will open in 1997. At first Borders workers enjoyed competitive pay, health and dental insurance, and profit-sharing.

But the company hasn't raised wages in five years, and starting pay averages $6.25 an hour. Employees are paying more for a new health plan with fewer doctors, and the company has ditched profit-sharing altogether.

The Des Moines store is the second Borders group to successfully organize. In October, Chicago's Lincoln Park store voted to join the U.F.C.W.

In Ann Arbor, organizers collected enough signatures to hold a National Labor Relations Board election but later cancelled it, uncertain of employee support.

Borders manipulates its hippie image and uses new-age obfuscations to derail union efforts. At stores all over the country, executives flown in from the Ann Arbor headquarters hold small, mandatory "open dialogues" where they insist that unions are "out of date" and "divisive" and will disrupt the "Borders culture."

Unions -- fine for other companies -- are a betrayal of the Borders family. "We're disappointed that they've chosen to bring in a third party," says Borders spokeswoman Jodie Kohn.

Borders has a third party of its own: Jackson, Lewis, the number-one unionbusting law firm in the country.

Following the Jackson, Lewis primer, management showcases union spending like a U.F.C.W. president's $132,000 salary (Borders C.E.O. Robert DiRomualdo rakes in more than ten times that amount), and hands out propaganda to stir up employees' strike fears.

 

 

At the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, warehouse -- where workers voted down the union 87 to 44 the day after Des Moines voted yes -- Borders reminded workers it could "close up and go somewhere else. Supervisors would say, 'And then what would you do?'" one employee told us. (Fearing for her job, she asked that her name not be printed.)

In the long run, threats and misinformation may have hurt Borders more than the union. In Chicago, says clerk and organizer Greg Popek, the campaign "left a bad taste in everyone's mouth," making even anti-union booksellers cynical about the company. So did Borders' employment of Jackson, Lewis, famous for strong-arming janitors and nursing-home staff.

The victories in Des Moines and Chicago are laying the groundwork for a national network. Although Jodie Kohn of Borders says she hasn't heard of any other mobilization efforts, employees in Albany, St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu and elsewhere are beginning to fight for representation -- and, ultimately, a single contract for the entire 157-store chain.

Workers in Harrisburg and Philadelphia are planning new elections. And Borders organizers are encouraging Barnes & Noble workers to join them, and thus unionize the majority of the country's booksellers.

As Miriam Fried says, "The ultimate measure of a company's social responsibility is the way it treats its employees."

LIZA FEATHERSTONE and EMILY GORDON

Liza Featherstone is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
Emily Gordon is The Nation's Newspaper Guild shop steward.