What's this all about?

Hi. You may have noticed a few things different here at Barnes & Noble in the last few days, and I want to tell you what's going on. Have our managers seemed especially nervous or nosy in the past week? Have they asked , ever politely, if you are satisfied with your job, and if they can do anything, anything at all, to improve it for you? For that matter, do you know what other employees are talking about--and if you hear anything , won't you please tell a manager what you heard?

For many of us that's already happened. If not yet, it will. And lots more will happen in the next few days. If you're still wondering why they're suddenly so concerned with your welfare and opinion (and, in fact, if they care so much now why they weren't asking six months ago), I'll tell you why: they're scared.

They are scared that some of us are finally starting to ask questions about how the company is run, and why things are like they are. Also, why some things never change without a push from below--and how we can start pushing on a few things that need changing.

Don't get me wrong; I like my job. I really like Barnes & Noble. I know most us do, or we wouldn't have been here long. However, things can always be improved -- but have you ever tried to make job "improvements" on your own? How far did you get? Did Len Riggio call you up and say, "Great Idea! You know, you don't make enough. That's gonna change right now!"

Well, he hasn't called me lately either.

So what’s the problem?
It can be summed up in two words: inequality and ignorance. There’s a few things Barnes & Noble does not want you to know. On those items they can’t hide, they hope at least to distract our attention.

But that won’t work anymore. It could never work for long in a company that makes its money by hiring intelligent, inquisitive people. Here’s the breakdown:

What's wrong with this picture?

Think about it. Our CEO made 102 times what the average bookseller made last year in pay and bonuses alone -- let's not mention his fortune in stock. And the situation was the same throughout the upper echelons of the company. Now, I'm sure Len Riggio is a hardworking guy, and he's done a lot for the company. But is anyone worth 102 of you?

On our bulletin board you've often seen signs saying, "Great job, gang! 120% of plan! We're way ahead! Thanks so much!" Great. We made you rich. Where's ours?

Yes, some of Barnes & Noble's success is due to clever executive descision making--even though those "executive decisions" included giving themselves huge bonuses and stock discounts. But where is the real money made? Isn't it true that the company would be hard put to make money without booksellers? Who's going to sell the books? Isn't their money really made on the sales floor by relying on our expertise, paying us only what they absolutely have to, and only allowing a skeleton staff to keep labor costs down?

In short, don't we deserve more of Barnes & Noble's wealth that we produce for them? Ask yourself this honestly: do you receive what you're worth?

If asked this question, the company will naturally say yes. Their answer will be "Look how well you're treated here : easy working conditions, good insurance and comparable, if not better pay than any other bookstore in Louisville."

Weeeeelllll...sort of. This kind of half-truth is a standard corporate trick to keep employees divided. Yes, our working conditions are pretty darn good. But no bookstore is an assembly-line operation; how bad could it be? Making Barnes & Noble comfortable was done for our customers, not the employees. It is irrelevant to our situation.

Yes we have good insurance. I'm really grateful of that. But read the fine print sometime. Look in the B&N employee handbook. No, don't bother; here's a quote from the last page: "All policies and practices are not covered in this handbook, and the Company may deviate from or change any part of the handbook without prior notice.

Here's another: "I also understand that the Company has made no promise to provide me with employment for a definite period of time and that no contract of employment has been created. I understand that all terms and conditions of employment are subject to change without notice".

So much for company assurances. And pay; let's talk about pay. If you've discussed it with your coworkers at all, you've surely noticed there's some differences that are hard to explain. Some employees were hired at higher wages than others, and the difference persists. Some new employees are making more than employees who have been here over a year. Are you one of them?

Now it's not the fault of new employees that they are paid more; doesn't the responsibility lie with the company signing the paychecks? Hey B&N, how about some equality?

And speaking of equality...yes, Barnes & Noble pays comparable wages to other bookstores around here. But is that adequate for the work we do? And is it similar to other bookstores that aren't necessarily right down the street?

The answer to both is no. Just look down Hurstbourne Lane (our store's street) Kroger is hiring at $6.00/hr. to start. Barnes & Noble claims to value its employee's expertise. With the myriad of interests and talents among our employees, you can find someone proficient in just about any subject. Someone who can take a few words of vague customer description and, more often than not, find exactly what they're looking for out of 150,000 titles. That's what sells books. That is how the company makes its money: through our skills. Ask yourself what compensation you get for the effort you put into building your skills, whether at college or simply through outside interest; all the years you spent reading that have made you an expert in several areas of our store.

Can I suggest an answer? How about less than you'd make bagging groceries? How about one more question: keeping in mind how many McDonald's drive-thru workers or Wal-Mart clerks can do what you do?

Then they are others who do what you do. How does our store measure up to them? Not terribly well. You know our biggest competitor is Borders. While B&N hires, generally at $5.25 (just about the absolute lowest the law allows them to pay..but they love you!), our nearest competitor starts at $6.25. And even that is below standard. The U.S. Department of Labor says the average starting pay for a high school graduate, with no other education or work experience is $6.61/hr. What's worse, the average U.S. retail worker (i.e., what we do) makes $8.26/hr. Even after two years of service, who here makes that? Anyone? Anyone?

Barnes & Noble makes a big deal out of being the best company it can be. We are always encouraged to be excellent. So why aren't we even average?

When we point this out to management, their reaction is predictable. We've already heard it in the Employee Handbook:

So what can we do?

By yourself, nothing. By ourselves nothing. Barnes & Noble is a lot bigger and more powerful than we are, and is not above using any kind of trick or lie it can get away with to stay that way. But there is a way out. You can join with the rest of us in an employee organization to demand fair treatment from the company. You can join a union. Okay, I said it. I'll say it again:


A union contract is a legally binding document. It provides all those things the employee's handbook doesn't: that no changes will be made in the contract without the union's consent. For instance, how many of us have been assigned extra duties when someone left--with no added compensation? It also provides a contract of employment that cannot be broken on an employer's whim. Right now, any of us could walk in at 8 a.m. and be ordered to take our lunchboxes and go.

Anyone who raises these issues to management alone will be slapped down immediately--if not fired. But together we can do it. They can't replace us in a day. In fact, they can't replace us at all!!

Now, when management hears about this the first thing they'll say is that we are being dragged in by a bunch of outsiders -- we don't need anyone else's help to run our business; We're a family here, right?

Not so fast there Buckaroo! Nobody came knocking down our door. We contacted the union because we knew we needed help against a powerful opponent: a company ready to break federal law at the first whisper of employee discontent. More on that in a minute.

Just remember we are the union. The only people involved are your fellow booksellers--the people you know and have worked with for a long time. Heck, we may have been to your house. The issues discussed and the problems dealt with will be yours - because they're ours too.

Whoa. What was that about Federal Law?
It's true. Ever heard of the Wagner Act? It's also called the National Labor Relations Act and was passed in 1935. It protects you if you try to unionize. By the rules of the Wagner Act, employers/managers cannot:

Hey, any of this sound familiar? It should. If not, it will. Our managers have already been asking about employee opinions, suggesting job improvements and harassing several employees in personal meetings. Get that? They are already breaking the law. That shows just how desperate the company is to hide its unfairness--what lengths they will go to in order to keep from treating you right. Personally, I thought our managers were above this sort of behavior. And it will only get worse.

Alone you are vulnerable. The only way you can protect yourself, your worth and your legal rights is by joining us. The company won't do it for you.

-bookseller James Gaines Barnes & Noble #2705

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