On May Day, the workers holiday that falls on May 1, Occupy Wall Street’s call for a general strike merged with the activities of labor unions and immigrant activists — the holiday’s traditional celebrants. In the midst of diverse political and artistic actions throughout New York City, members of the 150 or so unionized employees at the Strand Bookstore picketed their workplace over the ongoing dispute over contract negotiations, their action accompanied by the brass sounds of a ragtag marching band.
In the coming weeks, the Strand’s unionized employees say they plan to vote whether to authorize a strike. To get to this point, Strand workers say they had to become self-organized, since until recently, as many of them claim, the local branch of the United Auto Workers that represents them was too understaffed to offer them the support they had hoped for.
In many ways, the Strand employees’ situation represent the convergence of the various issues surrounding May Day. Those issues include an effort to use new models and techniques to reinvigorate the labor movement — often without the help of unions — for traditionally unorganized sectors of the economy, as union membership rates continue to decline nationally.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2011, only 5.4 percent of retail employees were union members. And union membership overall has declined considerably since the 1970s, particularly in the private sector. In 2011, 6.9 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union, compared to 35 percent during WWII.
A book store picket line
Shortly after 3 p.m. on Tuesday, about 30 of the Strand’s approximately 150 unionized employees and representatives from UAW local 2179 arrived outside the bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street to picket. They were quickly joined by over 50 Occupy protesters, neighborhood residents, members of other unions and a marching band. The picketers chanted “Union busting is disgusting” and “Nancy Bass, you’re rich, you’re rude, we don’t like you’re attitude.” Nancy Bass Wyden is the co-owner of the Strand, along with her father, Fred Bass. At one point, things got heated when picketing shop steward Will Bobrowski attempted to enter the store via a back door on 12th Street and was pushed back onto the sidewalk by a manager.
As MetroFocus previously reported, the Strand’s unionized members who work the registers, stock the shelves, drive the trucks and work in the Brooklyn warehouse have been without a contract since September, 2011. They claim the store’s owners, Fred Bass and Nancy Bass Wyden, are offering them a contract which would reduce their benefits, including their paid sick days. The contract would also implement a year-and-a-half wage freeze. But they say their greatest concern is that the contract would create two tiers of benefits, which they see as an effort to weaken their union. Staff members who joined the Strand after last September would receive significantly less benefits than new employees. They have laid out their complaints on a website called Take Back the Strand.
The Strand’s general manager Eddie Sutton told MetroFocus, “Yesterday was a demonstration. People exercised their first amendment rights, and the Strand supports independent spirits.” In March, Sutton explained that the Strand has struggled to compete with online retailers and the current state of the economy, and has never laid off an employee in the process. Sutton said he was unaware of the plan to vote on a strike authorization.
As the picket moved around the Strand, responses from people shopping in the bargain bins out front suggested a generation gap between those who grew up during a time of broader labor organization and many younger shoppers who didn’t seem to fully grasp the purpose of a picket line.
“I’m not going to buy the book anymore, I’ll go to the library,” said Jim Barresis, who was browsing through book carts before the picket arrived, and claims to have been shopping at the Strand for over 50 years. He added, “I knew the current owner’s father, Mr. Bass, the original. But I just support strikes in general.”
However, many 20-and-30-somethings browsing the bargain bins said they sympathized with the unionized workers, but would indeed purchase books that day.
“I heard they were protesting outside of the Strand,” said Rachel Fintz, who lives in Brooklyn and said she was in her 20s and would probably buy books that day. “This is one of my favorite book stores. I didn’t really expect there to be so many issues with their working conditions. I think it has to do with their union problems.”
Even though the non-managerial Strand workers are unionized, the store is still a retail establishment. While many employees have been there for years, even decades, there is a regular turnover of newer employees who must pass a 90-day probation period to gain union membership. They can more easily be fired, and thus did not participate in the picket.
What we do is try to organize workers and train them and build allies.
“My position is different from most of the people who are organized. Since I’m not in the union, I’m on probation, so anything I do and any toe I step on, they can fire me for. There’s a part of me who is the employee who knows I have to come into work tomorrow and has to put in my hours or else I will get fired, and the part of me who is a human being who wants to support all of my coworkers,” said a 23-year-old woman who said she’s worked at the Strand for one month, but asked to remain anonymous.
Strike at the Strand?
These are some of the issues which make a potential strike at the Strand particularly bold and perilous. But shop steward Bobrowski said the UAW is formalizing a strike authorization vote, something they’ve been planning in recent weeks.
“The company is remaining at this point stubborn, although they have come back to the table. It is clear that they are not interested in moving from the position they hold and we must take steps in order to accelerate the process and move forward. And a strike authorization vote, while it is a step toward a strike, it’s not actually going out on strike,” said Bobrowski, who has worked at the Strand for nine-and-a-half-years.
As independent bookstores struggle to survive in a digital economy of online book retailers, Sutton’s argument that the Strand must make sacrifices to survive falls in line with a trend of independent bookstore closures. However, it is complicated by a statement that co-owner Nancy Bass Wyden made in an interview with Marketplace last November.
“Business for us is doing great. In-store is up 8 percent,” Bass Wyden told Marketplace.
Beyond the contract negotiations, Strand employees said that they’ve noticed a rise in non-book related merchandise being sold in the store, and an increase in new management brought in from corporate book retailers. Greg Farrell, a clerk whose worked at the Strand for five years, created a comic about the store, which includes piece of dialogue that summarizes what seems to be the workers’ main argument: “The employees of the Strand are what make it the vital, cultural center it claims to be. It needs to be if it has any hope of survival.”
The belief that the Strand will increasingly depend on a well-educated, often artistic staff in order to hold its market of book lovers is what some of the workers say inspired them to self-organize in recent months.
“I think our self-organization is a necessity as a result of the union’s ineffectiveness or laziness or apathy,” said Farrell.
Thus, a group of Strand employees worked with the Occupy Your Work Place working group to apply pressure on ownership through direct action and media outreach. The result was that the local UAW asked the regional branch to bring in extra support.
It’s not just Occupy
The Strand workers’ initial self-organization and collaboration with the Occupy movement shows how there is more overlap between the various groups involved in May Day than has been reported. New models of worker organization are becoming increasingly popular.
Both on and in the days leading up to May Day, the vast majority of news headlines in New York and across the nation correlated the myriad political actions with the Occupy movement. In the media’s eye, the Occupy movement and its call for a general strike co-opted May Day from its historical participants: the labor movement and immigrant rights advocates. That expectation was an about-face, since many former residents of Zuccotti Park and op-ed columnists once feared and argued the Occupy movement could be co-opted by those latter progressive groups.
But rather than any kind of struggle for power among similar interests, it’s clear that there are many intersections between these groups. May Day in New York seemed more like an expression of solidarity that was often simultaneously fluid and awkward.
From the morning and throughout the day, dozens of union pickets in Midtown, and at the Strand, were frequently joined by immigrant rights groups, Occupy protesters, veterans and a roving band of guitarists. Unions and immigrant workers stopped by the Occupy movement’s “Really, Really Free Market” in Madison Square Park for free bagels and granola bars.
At 3 p.m., many of the groups began to gather in Union Square, where an eclectic billing of musical performers took the stage. A dance-off and mosh pit broke out within minutes of one another. Beginning at 5 p.m., a large march to the MTA headquarters at 2 Broadway was attended by a more diverse group of people and organizations than has been previously seen on May Day.
Only after the march was over did Occupiers attempt to claim the Vietnam Veterans Plaza off Water Street as their new home, which resulted in many arrests.
A larger story in a yet unfinished chapter
While the Strand’s unionized employees are predominantly younger creatives, their tendency to take organization into their own hands illuminates the broader picture of how some labor activists are thinking about new models as the economy continues to change and union membership declines. Multiple labor organizations that participated in New York City’s May Day events are not unions, including the Restaurant and Opportunities Center, Brandworkers International and New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
At noon, the Restaurant and Opportunities Center and a group of about 40 to 60 people picketed the Capital Grille at 155 East 42nd Street, the latest in a series of weekly direct actions against the establishment in the past three months. In February, the Restaurant and Opportunities Center filed a lawsuit against Darden, the company that owns the Capital Grille, Red Lobster, Olive Garden and several other major chains. The suit alleges that managers at Capital Grille franchises in New York and elsewhere racially discriminated against employees and that some kitchen workers, mostly immigrants, were not paid for overtime prep work.
“I would tell you the same thing we’ve said since they [Restaurant and Opportunities Center] began conducting activities at our restaurants, since they filed a lawsuit against us. We are taking these allegations seriously, but in this case we believe the allegations are baseless and fly in the face of our basic values,” said Rich Jeffers, media spokesperson for Darden.
The Restaurant and Opportunities Center, formed shortly after 9/11, is not a labor union, it’s a nonprofit. Its members do not have the right to engage in collective bargaining.
“We don’t have the right to represent workers and we’re not seeking to, so what we do is try to organize workers and train them and build allies,” said John Cronan, an organizer with the Restaurant and Opportunities Center’s New York branch. “We have legal routes and we also do on-the-ground direct actions. And because we don’t fall under the same rules [as unions] we can do whatever we want.”
Cronan said the model, often called workers’ centers, first emerged out of the southern United States where union membership is less common than in New York. In the past decade the model has become more popular in New York as a tool to support immigrant workers and workers in service sectors.
Brandworkers International, founded in 2007, was another nonprofit labor organization celebrating May Day. Although they weren’t picketing, executive director Daniel Gross said a group of truck drivers they’d helped organize recently won a major victory against their employer. That employer, a major bakery, was not named, Gross said, because the company has been cooperating with the truck drivers. The truck drivers, who are almost exclusively immigrants, said that one of their managers was regularly abusing them by manipulating their schedules over a number of years. They said the manager has since been replaced with a manager they consider less abusive.
They laid out what they wanted, and performed regular protest actions at and around their workplace.
“They made a declaration of dignity available to the company, and it had three points,” said Gross. “The first point involved respect from management, and that’s been accomplished, so there’s two more points to go.”
Like the Strand workers, the truck drivers are union members, but said they’re local union branch was not supportive.
“It’s night and day. The union was not supporting us, but with Brandworkers we got what we wanted and had a victory in only four weeks,” said six-year veteran driver Dario Pinos, who said he came to the United States from Ecuador 15 years ago and is a U.S. citizen.
The difference between the union’s and Brandworkers’ support is the fact that unions are designed to represent workers, rather than encouraging them to make decisions, and tend to focus more on financial negotiations rather than issues such as verbally abusive management.
“I think the traditional union model has largely failed to create a fighting movement that’s effective, because it depends on providing a service to workers, and the service provider model doesn’t allow workers to create their own leadership and their own militancy,” said Gross.
But Brandworkers doesn’t usually deal with unionized labor. Gross said their Focus on the Food Chain campaign is designed to help workers in New York City’s food processing and distribution centers create their own labor campaign. Over 80 percent of these workers are recent immigrants, said Gross, and none of them, except the bakery drivers, are unionized.
Echoing the ideas expressed by some of the Strand workers, as well as many participants in New York City’s May Day events, Gross said, “I think with the advent of the Occupy movement, we have a tremendous opportunity to connect around movements, around constituencies, retirees, veterans, students, workers and immigrant workers to really finally mount a serious challenge against the corporate power that’s controlling our political and social life.”