Last week, MetroFocus reported that many employees of the beloved Strand Bookstore believe the retailer is transforming into a worker-unfriendly, corporate-style environment. The employees’ biggest qualm was with a new contract the ownership had proposed. And yesterday, employees say the owners offered them a new version of a previous contract, which they believe would significantly reduce benefits and wages, and pit new workers against old. It looks like this dispute may intensify.
According to employees MetroFocus spoke with, The Strand has hired a large number of new non-unionized managers over the past year, which troubles the 150 or so unionized workers who stock the shelves and work the registers. But their main concern is that their contract expired last September, and both a contract proposed by the Strand’s owners in December and another just yesterday call for a two-tier wage system.
In the new contract they received yesterday, there are “some things that are more beneficial for us. The problem is that there is still a two-tier wage system,” said Chris McCallion, a Strand employee who has become somewhat of a spokesperson for the pushback against the ownership, and is collaborating with activists in the Occupy Wall Street movement toward that end.
Many union members claim the two-tier wage system is designed to produce financial disagreements between new and older employees, and weaken unions, because it stipulates new and old workers get different rates of pay, raises and benefits.
“Any kind of multi-tier system is an attack directly on young workers,” said Harrison Magee, one of the founders of Occupy Your Workplace, who has worked with The Strand employees on their negotiations. “New hires are going to be working less often, working longer hours and getting paid less.”
The Strand’s general manager, Eddie Sutton — a non-unionized employee who has been at The Strand since 1991 — told MetroFocus, “We’re working with the union as we’ve done and that contract is with the negotiating committee and the union. And that’s where it stands, and that process continues as it always has. One of the things that this has been characterized as is a dispute or a struggle, and it’s really just been negotiations on both sides — the union and the store.”
The employees also say they are still frustrated that the new contract calls for their paid sick days to be cut in half, and that it calls for a one-and-a-half-year wage freeze.
“We’re losing things for people already in the [union] membership and at the same time the people who are coming in are not encouraged to stay very long,” said McCallion. “That’s kind of a reflection of how the business wants to go, shifting from knowledgeable booksellers to an expendable labor force.”
Next week, The Strand union members will vote on whether to approve the new contract, something McCallion doesn’t think the majority of members will do. And if they reject it?
McCallion said things will “get hairy,” especially because he claims the union local has not been particularly helpful. He still hopes The Strand’s owners might be willing to offer yet another contract.
But hinting at collaborative work between Strand employees and Occupy activists, McCallion said, “We have resources available to us, where if need be we can escalate our resistance, but only if necessary. It is starting to get tight.”