Arlington Morning News

Arlington, TX

Saturday, October 25, 1997

Barnes & Noble Employees Consider Unionizing Store

by Tamara Chuang Staff Writer

James Schram earns $6.25 an hour as a supervisor at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on South Cooper Street. He likes books and the 30% employee discount.

But the benefits which include medical coverage and a 401k plan are no longer enough. He can barely live on his $10,000 salary, let alone finish his degree in social work at the University of Texas at Arlington. And he's tired of seeing competent employees quit every month because of low pay.

So, he's leading an effort to unionize store 2584.

"I think the universal gripe is that we are being paid $2 to $3 less than the average retail worker and our job is more demanding intellectually and sometimes physically," sad Schram, who started working for the bookseller a year ago while studying at the University of Texas at Austin.

Although only the Barnes & Noble stores in Louisville, KY and Kansas City, MO have publicly begun organizing, none of the 454 stores has unionized. However, four stores in the Borders bookstore chain have voted for union representation by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union; four others voted against.

Corporate officials at Barnes & Noble had little to say about the Arlington employee's efforts.

"We consistently communicate with our booksellers regarding any concerns they might have," said Lisa Herling, vice president of public relations for the New York based company. "It is not our policy to comment on those relationships in fairness to the employees involved."

But Mr. Schram said his burgeoning effort already has been criticized. When he first put up flyers about unionizing, a manager told him three hours later to remove them, he said.

"I was then labeled to have a 'bad attitude', and I'm quoting," Mr. Schram said. Now, "I don't speak about the union activities at work."

He said he's not interested in quitting for a higher paid calling because he likes what he's doing. "I like being surrounded by books," he said. "Really, this may sound corny, but I really do believe in the company. This isn't an anti-Barnes & Noble campaign. We just deserve more.

"We can't keep anyone who has any other skills because they are not going to want to work for $5.25 an hour," he said, estimating that the majority of his 50-some co-workers have college degrees. "You work 10 months, you can get promoted to supervisor so you get a $1.00 raise, then wait for a year from promotion you get a 25 cent raise."

So far, at an informal meeting held Thursday, nine people showed up to discuss expectations and figure out why they wanted to unionize.

"People do want some kind of change," he said. One specific: a $7 an hour minimum starting wage.

Although national figures are not available, the National Bureau of Labor Statistics is taking a comprehensive look at salaries at various cities nationwide. The Dallas survey was completed two weeks ago, said Jerome Watters, a regional economist for the Dallas office.

In Dallas, the average retail sales cashier makes $6.62 an hour. Combining all workers involved with sales - supervisors, sales clerks and representatives - the group averages $13.99 an hour.

"It [$13.99] is right up in line with the cost of living here," Mr. Watters said. "It's very difficult to live anywhere making $6 and $7 an hour today. Relatively speaking, I would think that these wages are pretty comparable to other cities. But I am sure the national average is a little higher."

However, he pointed out, Texas is below average for all occupations and it's cheaper to live here than say San Francisco, where cashiers make an average of $10 an hour.

Mr. Schram isn't aware of any other Barnes & Noble stores in the Arlington/Dallas-Fort Worth areas that are organizing. And none have contacted Wesley Gibbs in Louisville, KY who started organizing his own store in May.

Since launching his "Why Barnes & Noble Employees Need a Union" web site, Mr. Gibbs says he's been contacted by employees at about 30 stores all over the country.

"For me, it's not a question of liking the situation I'm in. I really do like it a lot. I just think it'd be a way to improve the situation for me and everybody else," said Mr. Gibbs, 30, who has a degree in English from Indiana University. "The ultimate objective is to unionize the entire chain."

The avid book reader who reads at least 10 books a month, started working with Barnes & Noble 15 months ago for $5.50 an hour. His most recent pay increase to $7.50 an hour came after his unionizing efforts and shortly after a visit from one of the company's chief executive officers, he said.

At his store, more than 30 percent of the employees have signed union cards - the minimum needed for the National Labor Relations board to call for a vote. But the vote hasn't happened yet, because they are waiting for enough employees to insure victory, Mr. Gibbs said.

Although retail workers have been represented by unions before, it's not so common anymore, said Dr. George Green, a UT-Arlington professor specializing in the history of the labor movement.

It has traditionally been difficult to organize clerical and retail employees, in part because they are scattered among different outlets. But nevertheless, they have succeeded," Dr. Green said. "These are jobs that have a good deal of turnover. Some of them don't take much skill, which makes the workers easier to replace."

But an added hurdle for employees in Texas is that the state is a right-to-work state, meaning employees don't have to join a union just because there is one.

"The right to work law was designed to curb the power of big unions like the UAW [United Auto Workers] but it didn't have that effect," he said. "The main effect has hurt smaller, struggling unions...It's true, they [the Barnes & Noble Employees] have got the right-to-work law working against them, but it doesn't mean this a futile quest," Dr. Green said.

The best proof of that comes from some of the leading service unions, like the 1.1 million member Service Employees International Workers in Washington, D.C. which represents health care, custodial and retail workers.

"We've organized 65,000 new SEIU members this year," said Beth Shipp, SEIU spokesperson. "And that's phenomenal. We're the third largest and fastest growing in the AFL-CIO."

Added Bill Ragen, SEIU's building service organizing director, "It's up to the unions to see there's a level playing field and that employees have a voice," he said.

"I think unions are getting more aggressive about organizing and defending the rights of workers. Our union is growing. We've organized close to 40,000 janitors last year. And these are low skilled, easily replace workers. It can be done."