Bargaining books
A local Borders inks a union contract, Sam Jemielity reports
On October 1, Borders crossed a new frontier: the Lincoln Park branch became the first in the burgeoning chain to settle on a union contract. With a vote of 28-9, employees ratified an offer Borders management put on the table after a year of intermittent negotiations. Store employees also voted on whether to strike, and the necessary two-thirds majority agreed to walk out, if necessary. The strike vote became moot with the acceptance the collective bargaining agreement.

On October 2, 1996, the employees of Borders store No. 101 voted to join Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), marking the first instance in which employees of a nationwide bookstore chain had voted to join a union. Then-employee Greg Popek (who now works for the UFCW) and co-worker Chris Grant earned national press attention for organizing the landmark effort. Despite working conditions at Borders that arguably surpass those at comparable chains, the Lincoln Park employees asked for better benefits, higher wages and greater job security.

The two sides are still ironing out the details of the contract, but the main points are fairly clear. Lincoln Park Borders employees didn't get a pay raise or increase in the starting salary (currently $6.50 an hour). However, the percent raise will not fall below 4 1/2 percent over the length of the contract (this does not apply to Borders "Milestone progression" program, whereby first-year workers receive salary bumps of 25 an hour at six months and one year). A grievance procedure gives Lincoln Park employees a more formalized means of airing complaints than a chain-wide "open door" policy that allows Borders workers to take an issue all the way to the chain's president, if they desire. Lincoln Park workers were unhappy with a company policy that allows Borders to terminate employees without cause. And all employees of the Lincoln Park store at the time of the contract ratification will receive a $150 signing bonus at the beginning of the next fiscal year, provided they still work at Borders.

The protracted negotiations frustrated Borders employees. "We certainly were dissatisfied with how long it took," says Grant. "But it is the first contract, and it is a new language for both parties." Kubek agreed: "A first contract is never an easy thing to come to."

The end to a year of meetings came suddenly. After marathon negotiations in mid-September, the two sides agreed to meet again in early October. At that point, says Popek, it looked unlikely that the union's demands would be met. Before the October meeting, Borders had simply been briefing workers on the company's stance.

Popek interpreted the strike vote as a statement from employees that "`We're gonna get this contract, or we're gonna strike.'" For his part, Grant downplayed the strike vote. Noting that Borders "had said they would replace us," Grant said, the vote to walk out indicated "how important the issue was for [the employees]." But Grant figures his co-workers reasoned, "`I'll vote yes for the contract and yes [on the strike] on the chance it doesn't go through.'"

The Lincoln Park store's year-long odyssey reflects a mini-trend among non-union retail workers. Borders stores in Des Moines, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and the World Trade Center store in New York City are still in negotiations. According to the Associated Press, employees at several Starbucks outlets in Vancouver, British Columbia, unionized late last year.

Why the burst of union fever at retail chains popularly seen as among the more progressive in the country? Popek sees the contract, which expires January 31, 2000, as base upon which to build. "There's a lot of things about [working at Borders] that people really like," he says. However, with the chain's growth over the past couple of years, says Popek, "the company has been rolling back things. The first step has to be stopping the ball rolling back." Borders spokesperson Dudek has another way of looking at the contract: "[It] is reflective of a lot of things that are in place in our company through policy or practice."


Copyright 1997 New City Communications, Inc.