Strand Up For Your Rights

Ari Paul Mar 30, 2012

Chris McCallion is a little on edge. He and other workers at the Strand Bookstore had contacted reporters hours earlier on March 15, going public with the rank-and-file anger about the owner’s new contract demands, which include an inferior wage tier for new workers, higher healthcare premiums and fewer days off. Store management has received a handful of media calls already, and McCallion, an employee since 2010, expects he’ll take some heat for speaking out.

The Strand, on the corner of Broadway and 12th Street and founded in 1927, is a book-lovers bookstore. In an age when even corporate monoliths like Borders have imploded and Barnes & Noble relies on the Nook to keep its doors open, the Strand, with its legendary 18 miles of books, remains the place where you can trip over new translations of Tolstoy or volumes on the Spanish Civil War. It is a retail establishment with a mostly full-time workforce, about 150 of whom are unionized (plus nearly 50 non-union managers and probationary workers) and have healthcare benefits. This renowned institution, which owns the building and takes in rent money, is still thriving, according to an interview with co-owner Nancy Bass Wyden in The Daily Beast.

McCallion is part of a shop-floor organization that has grown frustrated with the company’s demands for deep employee benefit cuts and workplace restructuring ever since Nancy Bass Wyden started to take over more day-to-day business duties from her father and co-owner Fred Bass, who is 83. In addition to the contract demands, which would constitute a wage cut, management has taken a divide-and-conquer approach to workers. Older workers were offered a buyout, which many took. A warehouse space has been moved from the Union Square location to Brooklyn, inspiring some of those workers to find employment elsewhere, McCallion said.

And instead of managers being promoted from the bargaining unit, he explained, laid-off supervisors from Barnes & Noble and Borders are brought in, chilling the relationship between management and labor. “They are afraid for their jobs,” McCallion said of the supervisors. “So they take a purely disciplinary approach.”

What’s left is a young retail workforce alienated from the union, UAW Local 2179. There are “fewer union meetings,” McCallion said, noting that “people don’t have a lot of interest in union matters.” On top of that, the workers are unsettled by the fact that they have few other career options. As McCallion explained, many people take jobs at the Strand to bide their time. People with master’s degrees wait for a real academic job. Writers and musicians work in retail to pay the bills until something better comes along. “There really isn’t that much better out there,” McCallion said, pointing to jobless figures and stagnant wages brought on by the 2008 economic collapse.

Retail, or “no-collar,” labor campaigns often face a skeptical public. During the Industrial Workers of the World organizing drive at Starbucks, people scoffed that these workers got medical benefits, so they shouldn’t complain. Retail workers are seen as having chosen to work in a sector known for inferior wages and benefits rather than taking a job in civil service or manufacturing.

“We want to fight the idea that you should just accept the fact that ‘I work in a high-turnover job, so I don’t deserve rights,’” McCallion said. “It’s a question of being treated with dignity, and not how someone’s profit supersedes an ability to make a wage commensurate to the cost of living.”

The union is currently finalizing a proposal to show to members. It still contains a two-tiered wage system, and a union source says he is confident the membership will not vote for a deal that contains such a provision. If a vote is held, it will take place in early April. According to union sources, the company has said it needs its worker givebacks due to recent financial constraints.

The union has asked to see the company’s financial records, and management has refused to provide them (as a privately held company, it has no legal obligation to do so). It is clear to some that the management offensive is a result of Bass Wyden taking on the day-to-day business operations. “It’s been a colder shoulder than we’re used to in previous negotiations,” said one union source.

This transition doesn’t just affect labor issues. Workers believe that management has changed the store from a dusty, bargain warehouse for bibliophiles to a slightly hipper version of Barnes & Noble. New, higher-priced books are displayed more prominently than used books, and more non-book merchandise is sold at the front. McCallion noted that a lot of this is a response to the rise of e-reader, and the shrinking numbers of independent bookstores. “They’re looking for short-term fixes,” he said.

McCallion insists that worker power is bolstered by the community of local residents, students and intellectuals who have a personal connection with the Strand, and that this community could be persuaded to support the workers and bring that message to the management. More important, this rank-and-file organization, which is working with activists from Occupy Your Workplace, wants to be a harbinger for more retail labor organizing around the city.

McCallion said that the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall was an inspiration for a retail bargaining unit whose enthusiasm was waning.

“Suddenly it seemed possible,” he said. “Every struggle took on a new context. ‘Occupy’ has become a great unifying thread for all the struggles going on.”

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