At the Strand Bookstore, a Retail Labor Struggle in the Age of Amazon and Occupy

March 16, 2012 at 4:00 am

The Strand Bookstore, located at 828 Broadway in the East Village, is widely considered a New York City icon. Recently, employees say the independent book store has developed a corporate-style atmosphere. Photo courtesy of Blog Nueva York.

In an age where online retailers are forcing  even the largest corporate chain book stores to close, The Strand in Union Square is one of a handful of great remaining independent shops left in New York City, beloved by many New Yorkers. And while most retailers of books, as well as other goods, aren’t exactly known for their excellent employee treatment, most of The Strand’s employees have been members of the United Auto Workers Union (the union supports many industries besides auto workers) for 35 years, and labor rights activists long pointed to the store as a model of good retailer policies.

But lately, Strand employees say that the owners are giving them a raw deal and transforming their workplace into the kind of corporate-style environment they think The Strand should stand against. And now, with help from the Occupy movement, some employees are mobilizing to fight back.

In addition to circulating a press release to local universities and labor groups, employees told MetroFocus that if The Strand’s owners won’t move forward with contract negotiations, they intend to escalate the pressure — possibly with a strike.

Chris McCallion started working at The Strand a little over a year and a half ago, but last February, when the chain retailer Borders closed, he started to notice some changes.

“Since Borders went under they’ve [The Strand’s owners] been directly harvesting managers from those stores,” said McCallion. “Normally they’d promote someone who’d been working here for a while, someone who was a good worker.”

They’re counting on the fact that if we get lower wages we’ll just go find another job. But we want to protect the interests of the working class.

While it might not be surprising that an influx of corporate management would rub an independent bookstore employee the wrong way, McCallion says the problem is that in the past year or so, The Strand has hired more non-unionized managers than they’ve ever had (“about 33 or 35”). The contract of the 150 or so unionized employees expired last September. McCallion said that in December, after they’d hired the outside managers, the Strand’s owners offered the unionized rank and file employees who stock the shelves and man the registers a new contract that would reduce their paid personal days and sick days by nearly half, and nearly double the amount each employee would have to pay for their health insurance premiums.

McCallion said that when he started working at The Strand, employees would start at $9 per hour, become unionized after a three-month probationary period and would often end up receiving 25 or 50-cent raises every six months from the owners, on top of the 33-cent raises every six months guaranteed by the union. Employees conspicuously stopped receiving those merit-based raises about a year ago, multiple employees told MetroFocus.

But The Strand employees have a larger complaint.

“Personally, I think the biggest problem is that they want to introduce a two-tier wage system,” said a 24-year-old female Strand employee who started working there nine months ago, and asked that her name not be used. “That’s been the main tactic to break unions since the auto industry was going under.”

Most unionized employees — particularly those who work in traditionally non-unionized private sectors (for example, the Broadway janitors who nearly struck last December over a proposed two-tier wage system) — agree that offering two different contracts pits new and old employees against one another in order to break up unions. It creates conflict between them at the collective bargaining table.

What a two-tier wage system would mean for The Strand is that anyone who started working after last September would receive smaller raises and receive less paid sick days, vacation days and benefits than longer term employees, said Will Bobrowski, The Strand’s shop steward (an employee who also acts as a union representative), who has worked there for nine and a half years. “It’s an aggressive position, negotiating-wise, I think that’s clear,” said Bobrowski.

Do all the workers feel this way?

Some of the employees circulated a survey through their shop steward, detailing the proposed contract in order to see how other employees felt about it. They described the resistance to the two-tier system as “tremendous.”

Eddie Sutton, The Strand’s general manager (he got his start there sweeping floors in 1991), said, “Since 1976, we’ve worked with the union transparently and in good faith and we continue to do so. We live in a very challenging economy and for bookstores large and small the challenges are even greater with significant shifts to E-readers and the Internet. We’ve managed to keep all of our staff fully employed against this uncertain backdrop and have never laid a single person off in the process. We are proud of all of our booksellers in all departments who continue to provide our customers with a truly positive and singular New York experience seven days a week.”

The Strand’s argument that financial pressure from the online book industry is forcing them to make sacrifices in order to keep their doors open sounds very understandable. But according to one employee in his 20s, who’s worked at The Strand for over a year and asked to remain anonymous, the store achieved record sales last Christmas. The Strand did not comment on its annual earnings to MetroFocus.

The Strand is known for its massive collection of used and rare books, which, according to legend, would span 18 miles if lined up domino-style. The Strand's general manager said the store has never laid off an employee, but it is facing difficult competition from E-readers and online retailers. AP/Mary Altaffer

According to that employee, the commonalities that unite the vast majority of The Strand’s unionized employees — they work 40 hours per week, aren’t originally from New York and are often pursuing artistic work on the side — also makes them vulnerable to intimidation.

“We’re naturally insecure, we don’t have family here, so they make you feel like this is the only thing you’ve got to hold onto. The managers are not in the union and that’s for a reason,” he said, adding that he sensed many of the managers are scared about losing their jobs, but are being pressured to intimidate employees by their bosses.

But according to McCallion, the most vulnerable employees are the people who’ve been working their the longest, and who have the highest salaries.

“About a year ago they offered the older workers a buyout where they’d pay them a week’s pay for every year they’d been here, if they voluntarily resigned,” said McCallion. “We lost a large number of our older workforce.”

At this point, he said, most of the oldest employees work in the warehouse on the top-story of the building, but just recently managers suddenly announced that the warehouse operation would soon  be moving to Brooklyn. The added commute, he believes, would force the warehouse staff to consider retirement.

“Any changes that we’ve made, including moving our warehouse to Brooklyn, are all designed with one goal on mind, which is to keep this 85 year literary old landmark both vital and viable,” insisted Sutton, the general manager.

But employees say the warehouse move is also an attempt to weaken the union.

“Older people are being pushed out, and they’re under increasing pressure from management to leave. Meanwhile, younger workers are coming in at a much more rapid pace of turnover. It’s obvious where that trend is leading,” said McCallion.

This is not the first time the Strand has had to deal with labor issues. The store is co-owned by Fred Bass and his daughter, Nancy Bass Wyden. At this point, employees told MetroFocus, the senior Bass isn’t very involved in the store’s day-to-day operations. In 2008, back when it existed in print formNew York Press reported that under Bass Wyden — a former Exxon employee who’s married to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) — there were allegations of racial discrimination against The Strand’s employees. It was reported that management nearly fired a pregnant employee who needed to take time off for doctor appointments. One employee, Saundra Buchanan, told the New York Press that Bass Wyden “would actually come into the bathroom and we’d be washing our hands…and she would say, ‘You should be using the bathroom on your break time!'”

The employees MetroFocus spoke to said they haven’t experienced this behavior since they began working, but instead are feeling a different kind of pressure, this time related to their contract.

“We want the company to be under enough pressure that they’ll sit down at the negotiating table and offer something reasonable,” said McCallion, who added that he believes that isn’t happening because the owners and managers perceive the pressure as coming from the union’s representatives, and not the employees themselves, in addition to the fact that unions don’t have a particularly powerful influence in the retail industry. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2011, only 5.4 percent of retail employees were union members.

And that’s why for the last few months, some of The Strand employees have been meeting with labor activists in the Occupy movement’s Occupy Your Workplace working group. “They’ve become an incredible resource for all these little struggles that are simmering,” said McCallion.

For The Strand employees, that’s meant working with labor activists to figure out how to build strength among the rank and file workers through techniques like the aforementioned survey, and generally knowing that there are people outside The Strand willing to support any future labor actions. On Thursday, Strand employees distributed a press release detailing their complaints. Multiple Strand employees, who asked to remain anonymous, said that a strike is never out of the question.

“They’re counting on the fact that if we get lower wages we’ll just go find another job,” said McCallion. “But we want to protect the interests of the working class.”

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