Thursday January 30, 1998

Internet Helps Drive to Organize Bookstore Labor


by Joe Ward

The Courier-Journal

Business Section - Page 1 - Feature Story


Wesley Gibbs set out last summer to organize workers at Barnes & Noble Booksellers' superstore in Louisville. But now he hopes he might get a union in the company's stores across the country with the help of a new organizing tool: the Internet.

His methods have impressed Bruce Finley, veteran organizer at Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 227 - the union some Louisville Barnes & Noble employees want as a collective bargaining agent.

"It just boggles my mind, having done this work for 30-some years, to see what these people can do with the Internet," Finley said.

Gibbs, who has left B&N and works for a Louisville Internet Service Provider, said he stole the idea from workers organizing stores owned by Borders Group Inc., a similar, competing, nationwide chain.

He even borrowed a lot of information from the Borders organizers' Web page on what a union can do for workers and what companies typically tell workers to discourage unions, among other things.

But he went to Securities and Exchange Commission sites on the World Wide Web to dig out such information as the $900,000 annual salary of B&N chairman and chief executive officer Leonard Riggio, with its $540,000 bonus. And he found a Publisher's Weekly report that B&N had an operating profit of $199 million for 1997.

He put it all on his Web Page - at - along with information on the daily happenings at the store.

To his surprise, he said, two things began to happen. He started getting questions from employees of B&N stores in other cities who had stumbled onto the page. And, he said, people at his store began to get raises, as did people at other B&N stores.

The raises, at least in Louisville, are controversial because it is illegal for an employer to give raises as a way to discourage a union drive. Gibbs alleges, in charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board, that B&N issued the raises and took other illegal steps - removing literature from bulletin boards, interrogating employees about union matters and conducting surveillance among other things - to nip the union in the bud.

Jennifer Beldeau, New York-based manager of corporate communications for B&N, said yesterday that company policy is not to comment on legal matters.  The Louisville store's manager was not available yesterday.

Gibbs, 30, has a degree in literature from Indiana University. His pay was $7.50 an hour when he left the company last November.

Before he started talking to the union, he was being paid $6.60 an hour, which he said was 40 cents less than the person who had previously done his job. That was for a job for which a college degree is "almost a prerequisite," Gibbs said. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that the average retail clerk was paid $7.93 an hour in Kentucky and $8.26 nationally in 1996, when the last occupational wage survey was conducted.

In any case, Gibbs said, when he began talking up a union, B&N quickly responded. He said Michele Smith, from the company's human resources office in New York, came to the store, announced that a study had shown that wages in Louisville had not kept pace, and announced increases.

Starting wages went from $5.50 to $6.25 an hour for full-time workers and from $5 to $5.75 for part-time workers, Gibbs said. He said about half the store's workers got raises of 50 cents an hour, while the other half were raised 25 cents.

Gibbs said he took a job with Win.Net, the internet service provider, last fall. He asked to continue as a part-timer but that did not work out.

But he continues to update his web page because he has friends at B&N and wants to improve their lot. Efforts to reach several workers who Gibbs said are continuing the drive were not successful over the past week. Workers active in a union drive often avoid public statements until they win.

Gibbs and Finley said they are collecting union cards to be submitted to the NLRB with a petition for a collective-bargaining election.

Meanwhile, Gibbs said, he has heard from employees of perhaps 30 of Barnes & Nobles' 454 stores, many of whom have started drives of their own. One, in Arlington, Texas, probably will petition for an election before Louisville does, he said.

"The ultimate objective is to unionize the entire chain," Gibbs told a Texas reporter.

Finley said the Food and Commercial Workers have had some success organizing Borders stores, with election victories in Chicago, New York, Des Moines, and Bryn Mawr, Pa. - with the help of the Internet.

"The Internet is an untapped resource those of us in the labor movement have to learn to use," Finley said.  "The technology is able to almost instantaneously communicate with people who share your interests across the country and the world."

For union drives, he said, the medium "kind of takes the isolation away." Workers far apart can use it to share ideas and to give each other emotional support.  They also can benefit from the same research on the company, much of which can now be done on the Internet.

"It just boggles my mind," he said.