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Borders skirmish

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It’s a Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor’s downtown retail district, and the holiday shopping season is gathering steam. The din of normal activity is broken by the drumming and chanting of strike supporters outside Borders’ flagship Ann Arbor store, helped along by sympathetic motorists, bus drivers and truckers giving a horn-pounding thumbs-up.

The stream of pedestrians is drawn to the action, walking through the peaceful demonstration and often stopping to chat with the picketers. It’s not hard to be drawn in, with radiant young women picketers proffering leaflets and making impassioned pleas to honor the picket line. Even the “Raging Grannies” arrive on this rainy day to beef up the picket line and sing colorful labor songs. A square-shouldered Ann Arbor policeman shows up — the 44th time police have been summoned by management — to advise the picketers how best to accommodate the bustling foot traffic.

The incongruous spectacle is sure to baffle more than a few passers-by, as Borders, a bookseller that has long prided itself on its reputation as an enlightened company, is besieged by striking workers who accuse it of corporate profiteering and violation of labor laws. It’s not quite what one would expect from a company whose mission statement pronounces, “We recognize people to be the cornerstone of the Borders experience by building internal and external relationships, one person at a time.”

It’s also unusual to see Detroit-style labor tactics employed in the upscale vale of academia, let alone the hometown of Borders’ headquarters. A brief chat with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 876 organizer Tom Rekuc brings it all into perspective, as he explains, “Retail is the fastest-growing sector in the country.” As Rekuc tells it, with blue-collar jobs being sent overseas to exploit the cheap labor of developing countries, what is known as the “living-wage movement” has opened up a new front in labor activism.

The story began last year, when workers at Borders’ Liberty Street store voted 51-4 in favor of union representation by the UFCW. At least a dozen Borders stores have attempted to unionize, and only one other store, in Minneapolis, has made it past the voting stage (though the Minnesota unionists continue to work without a contract). After nine months of unproductive negotiations, the overwhelming majority of Ann Arbor’s Liberty Street workers rejected the proposed contract, which they said was mainly a restatement of the employee handbook. They voted to strike. Since about half of the workers at the store walked out on Saturday, Nov. 8, they have been showing up to picket the store, rain or shine.

Fellow unionists are pitching in. The Teamsters and UPS will not deliver shipments to the store, so Borders is now forced to rely on nonunion Federal Express.

Striker Jim Kirk, 52, has logged 13 years at the Ann Arbor location. “They stonewalled and tried to do everything they could to make negotiations difficult,” says Kirk. He looks down the sidewalk at the workers who chant and pace in the damp cold, and remarks, “Look at all the energy out here! They could have all this energy in there!”

The store, which has a surfeit of personnel from other locations, suffers from some rather loose merchandising. Some prominent titles are simply stacked on the floor, and subscription cards lie around the magazine racks, not picked up.

To ask to speak to the manager about the union’s grievances is to be ushered into that disorienting twilight world often seen in Michael Moore movies, where executives courteously assure you that all is well while heartily disagreeing with union charges.

“It’s not our policy to debate negotiating points in the media,” explains Borders Group spokeswoman Anne Roman.

Such cautious statements have a hard time trumping the voluble banter on the street.

And despite company claims that employees love their employer, according to the Detroit office of the National Labor Relations Board, Borders’ Ann Arbor store has been the subject of allegations of unlawful activity, including charges that Borders coercively interrogated employees about the union campaign and threatened to punish anyone who discussed employee discipline with fellow workers. Borders, which has about 1,200 Borders and Waldenbooks outlets and reported $3.5 billion in revenues last year, settled out of court.

“Part of that settlement did state that Borders Group was, in settling this, not admitting any unlawful activity,” Roman says.

Of this statement, striker and 18-year Borders veteran Hal Brannan jokes, “It’s like saying, ‘We didn’t do it, and we won’t do it again!’”

Many workers, longtime employees of the store with families to support, complain that the store gives a raise and then cuts employee hours, or demands that managers on salary do the work of hourly employees. They charge that the minimum scheduled raise of 3 percent was eaten up by changes to the health care package.

When faced with such complaints, Borders’ executives disagree completely. They maintain that Borders is a competitive workplace, a statement to which Brannan responds, “It is a competitive retail environment, but they’re not doing the best they can. What I’m out here to say is that balancing the needs of their employees, their customers, and their shareholders, they have swung way too far to the shareholders. … They should become not just competitive, because that’s a race to the bottom. They should lead the way.”

As the union’s flier tells it, in 1991, the original owners of Borders offered new employees $6 an hour to start. The base starting rate has increased 50 cents in 10 years and is now $6.50 an hour. The flier also lists the approximate hourly wage of the CEO of Borders: $586 an hour.

Charles Murphy, a former manager, chuckles grimly and says, “I just went over to Barnes & Noble and they’re starting full-time employees at $7 an hour, and they give benefits at 30 hours.” He says Borders employees must work 35 hours a week to qualify.

It is an injury enough to the strikers that they have seen stagnant income and rising health care costs. They feel further insulted to see that Borders is making a tidy profit — and using it to buy back stock instead of investing in customer service and employees.

“Borders has fared very well on the economic turndown,” Brannan says. “They have not been hurt. Their profits have consistently gone up over the last three years. … And what they’ve done with that money is, rather than investing in their employees and in their customer service systems, they’ve invested in buying back their own stock with over $100 million dollars, which will probably [help], the stock is up a little bit, but it’s going to benefit mostly those large stockholders, German banks, Scudder Group, and those people that get a lot of stock options, like the executive board.”

The Borders Group’s last annual report lists net income at $111 million.

Picketers say they are on strike because of the fruitless negotiations. Brannan says of the talks, “They want to talk about little wordings in paragraphs and articles that don’t really get to the heart of the matter. Their final proposal was essentially the employee handbook with a mechanism for taking out the union dues and a disputes procedure that really didn’t have any teeth to it.”

Rekuc calls it “surface bargaining,” explaining, “Bargaining consists of more than showing up and saying no.”

Dan Smith, Borders Group’s senior vice president of human resources, does not seem impressed with the union’s demands.

“Even in the negotiations, I personally asked them, ‘You say this is what you want, these are your demands. What is that based on?’ And they don’t have a good answer to that,” Smith says. “They say, ‘Well, it’s more than we have today.’ Yeah, but what’s it based on? Where did you come up with this? They can’t answer that question. I think it’s an emotional thing — not a fact-based thing right now. They’re caught up in the emotion of this cause that they want ... to run their store the way they want their store run.”

Brannan says with a laugh, “They want a reason? How about, ‘My kids need to eat. The kids need shoes.’”

Michael Jackman is a Detroit-based writer. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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