Thursday, February 17, 2011

Borders Goes Belly Up

My old Borders badge

Number 5 World Trade Center before its destruction September 11, 2001. From 1996 on, Borders occupied the whole ground floor.

Borders and I have a history together, and not always a happy one. I was part of one of those widely scattered disparate efforts to unionize Borders, to organize store employees back in the 1990s. I was part of the effort to unionize the World Trade Center store in New York, at the time, their first and flagship store in New York.

I read the news this week about Borders' filing for bankruptcy. Couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of guys as far as I'm concerned.

I was at the World Trade Center store from the beginning. I was part of the crew who involved in "The Sort," the long hours and hard work of setting up the store before its opening. This was my second "sort." I helped open the Barnes and Noble store in the Citicorp Building in 1994, and remained there for 2 more years. Barnes and Noble and I did not get along at all, and I was delighted to get an opportunity to work for their competition, Borders, which was new in town at the time. For the first year, I was happy to be there. The whole atmosphere was much more relaxed. I had a great time with fellow employees. We had after-work parties at various apartments, whole groups of employees would go to the movies together, or go out bar-crawling together. The employees were a wide mix of people all down on their luck and working in retail: lots of aspiring writers and actors, musicians and artists, a lot of hard-up academics and scientists, sci-fi enthusiasts, a big population of gays and lesbians, and people just looking to put food on the table.

We all worked hard for very small wages, just a few steps above minimum wage. By New York City standards, it was a starvation wage. We had health insurance benefits, but they took a big bite out of our paychecks. Ironically, the employees from poorer backgrounds and with children had to refuse the health insurance. It was just too expensive for them. Things got worse when Walden Books bought out Borders about 1997. Full time positions were cut. Hours for remaining full time workers lengthened and jobs got harder and tasks multiplied. The company began to rely more and more on younger part time employees to save money.

In 1997, some employees began a campaign to organize the store employees and to form a union. I was a relative late-comer to the campaign, at first a little reluctant to join. Our efforts to organize took us through a grand tour of Reagan era labor laws that blocked us at almost every turn. Just about all labor actions like slowdowns or walkouts were forbidden (things that labor organizers can do in just about every other industrialized country). The company had maximum legal permission to do whatever it wished just short of firing people for union activity (they could fire them for no reason at all). We were subjected to company anti-union meetings with compulsory attendance for employees ( something that is illegal in every other industrialized country). When the time time came to vote on union membership, the union won by an almost 2 to 1 margin.

The company treated us all badly, making our jobs impossible in order to drive us out. They treated their own supporters badly, especially the assistant managers, who were under a lot of pressure, and told constantly that this was all their fault and that the union was after them and their jobs.

It was all down hill from the union election, and I had a front row seat to watch. I was part of the contract negotiation committee and watched the company destroy us. They hired a first-rate union-busting law firm. They flew out their executives from Ann Arbor and put them up in first class accommodations in the nearby Millennium Hotel. All they had to do was to sit there and wait us out, all the while staying just within a hair of the legal definition of "bargaining in good faith." We could do almost nothing short of calling a strike. We could do outside pickets, but that's it. We did a petition drive, and got a lot of support from our customers and from other people working in the WTC (interestingly, the WTC cops were some of our best supporters). We scaled back our demands and scaled them back again and again, and the company would not budge, not even on the smallest and most reasonable demand. In the end, unable to deliver for our workers, our union collapsed and dissolved itself after a year. We affiliated with the UFCW, and the president of the local ended up selling us out by negotiating with the company behind our backs, trying to salvage something from the whole debacle. We were one single little store union going up against an enormous corporation, and the outcome was probably inevitable, but we tried our best.

We were a very disparate group in our union. One of our leaders was a former Trotskyite radical. Another was a former conservative political activist. The lesbians were all solid for the union, while the gay men were evenly split. Some of our most enthusiastic supporters, who also provided some of the union leadership, were from a small group of evangelical Christians.
I eventually left Borders for more retail elsewhere, for more work in commercial mural painting, and eventually for academia. That union organizing experience was one of the most powerful, and frustrating, experiences in my life. I still keep in contact with some of my old Borders colleagues.

One of my most vivid memories is from one of the early contract negotiations. I remember an attorney from a union-busting firm representing the company and wearing a thousand dollar suit lecturing us on spending our wages wisely.

And now, as all the Middle East is all on fire for participatory democracy, the right to bargain collectively, and to form independent labor unions, is in the process of being effectively repealed here in the USA.

The pro-union newsletter that we published.

The back page of the union newsletter.

My old union campaign badge

An article from February 13, 1998 in the now defunct New York Blade about Borders trying divide and conquer tactics on gay employees to defeat the unionization effort. If the photo are yours truly and Anthony Neff.

The Borders Union Contract Committee on March 6, 1998. From left to right: Emily Winkelstein, Jason Chappell, yours truly, Chevon Daniels, Aron Phillips (our first shop steward), Tashima Washington, and David Kaplan.

My old Borders employee Polaroid, about 1997, showing me working in the back room of the periodicals department.


Jason Chappell said...

Ah, the New Millenium News. Printed fresh and delivered warm from the Kinko's on Reade Street, right across from the Firehouse. I remember sitting with Brenda there and putting in the final edits on one edition right next to a german couple designing a soft-porn massage joint photo ad to go in the back of the Village Voice. We were all new to photoshop and MSPublisher, swapping support and help links. LOL.

Counterlight said...

Yes, I remember that publication had perhaps less than stellar production values, but with a shoe-string budget, we did a lot.

it's margaret said...

Dang... I love you.

JCF said...


I feel like my happy memories shopping (mainly browzing) in the State Street store in Ann Arbor (1999-2010) just got, um, busted.

Counterlight said...

No reason to feel bad JCF. We never wanted any customer boycotts. We wanted them to come in and shop, and to remember the needs of the people who helped them out on the floor and behind the cash register.