When I first started working at the Strand bookstore, a New York City literary landmark famed for its eighteen miles of books, the last thing I expected was to end up in the middle of a labor struggle. I was glad, if surprised, to learn that the famous store was represented by UAW Local 2179. My parents are both public school teachers, so I understood the importance of collective bargaining. And it was a relief to know that if I couldn?t make it in writing or editing, at least I was on track to job security and health insurance. But I didn?t really expect I?d be there the three months required to make union. It?s been ten months, and I?m still at the Strand, participating in a rank-and-file effort to build up workplace solidarity in the face of ownership?s attempts to cut back on wages and benefits and move toward breaking the union. And I can?t think of anything better I could be doing with my time.
My coworkers at the Strand and I have been without a contract since the previous one expired at the end of August. Ownership had not met to negotiate since December when, on March 21, they presented the union with a final offer: personal days would be decreased by almost half, employee contributions to health insurance premiums would increase by 50 percent, wages would freeze for a year and a half, and any worker who started after September 1 would receive fewer benefits than those who started before. That?s called a two-tier system, and it?s a clear attempt to undermine the union.
In two-tier systems newer employees receive fewer benefits or lower rates of pay than more senior employees. Various industries have tried to implement them in the past, but they came into effect in a big way in 2007, when the UAW agreed to implement one in its contracts with Chrysler, GM, and Ford. At the time, the two-tier system was presented as a way to save the big three. These companies were going under; they couldn?t afford the union benefits of the past. Here was a way to create jobs without asking older workers to give up the standard they were used to. It was a stop-gap measure in the midst of recession; an anomaly.
While I am sympathetic to the difficult position UAW negotiators found themselves in at the time, I think the acceptance of the two-tiered system was a mistake. For a union to accept a two-tier system is for it to adapt an entirely defensive strategy. Unions do not have the power they once did, and to accept a two-tier system is to accept the continuation of that loss. It is to accept that unions are in decline and that all a union can do is preserve benefits and rights for those who are used to them, until they die or retire, and a new generation, weaned on privation, takes their place. Two-tier systems are not a stop-gap measure: they are an attempt to phase out unions altogether. And that is not something any union should accept.
This became clear when, in the midst of recovery, the autoworkers? 2011 contract maintained the two-tier system. ?What was once seen as a desperate move to prop up the struggling auto industry is now considered an integral part of its future,? gushed the New York Times. It became clearer still when the idea metastasized from the auto industry to show up in the contract for New York City office cleaners, represented by SEIU local 32BJ. These workers gave it the side-eye it deserved, voting to authorize a strike that was avoided only when ownership offered a better contract without a two-tier system. So the fact that a two-tier system showed up in the contract of a non-chain, family-owned bookstore represents a disturbing trend. This is one meme that doesn?t deserve to catch on, and yet, like that ?What I Really Do? chart that made it to your grandma?s Facebook page, it?s spreading.
The fact that it?s showing up at the Strand isn?t only disturbing because it shows the popularity of the idea with ownership across the board. It?s disturbing because the Strand is exactly the kind of place that needs to see more unionization in the future, not less. Only 5.4 percent of the U.S. retail trade has union representation, and yet, according to a study released by CUNY and the Retail Action Project this year, it is one of the fastest growing sectors in the United States. The study surveyed 436 non-union retail workers in New York City and found that the median salary was $9.50 an hour and 71 percent do not receive health benefits, yet one-third have families to support. In addition, many employees faced lower pay and fewer benefits based on race and gender. It suggested that unionization was a way to improve those figures. And yet the Strand, which could be a positive model for the industry, has proposed a contract that would eventually break its union.
The two-tier system at the Strand would make it very unattractive for new employees to stick it out. Why would you when the store sees you as a second-class citizen? Although workers who have been at the store under better contracts now make quite a decent wage, under the proposed contract, new hires would start at $9.50 an hour. Yet their health insurance contributions would jump sooner than older employees?, who have more to contribute. Eventually, older employees will die or retire (or accept buyouts) and the unionized workforce will be replaced by a monthly rotation of new faces. The Strand will become like other retail stores, when other retail shops need to become more like the Strand.
The Strand?s ownership, like the auto industry?s, is claiming that times are tough, especially for bookstores, and it?s an easy argument to make in the age of Amazon and recession. But it doesn?t add up. While general manager Eddie Sutton has told the New York Times that sales have fallen 5 percent since 2008, co-owner Nancy Bass-Wyden went on record in November saying business in the store was up by 8 percent. This was while the negotiations that led to the recently rejected contract proposal were still underway. The store was claiming poverty to the union while bragging about its successes to the press.
The 1 percent has been making this scarcity argument ad nauseam since the recession set in, and yet when incomes rose in 2010, taxpayers making over $250,000 saw their incomes rise 13.8 percent, while those making between $50,000 and $100,000 only saw them rise by 1.5 percent. The problem isn?t scarcity; the problem is distribution. While imperfect, unions, at the Strand and everywhere, are one of the few tools we have for correcting that disparity.
I?m proud that my coworkers and I voted down the proposed contract two weeks ago. Like the office cleaners of 32BJ, we plan to fight. But this fight is larger than the Strand. It?s about ensuring that a new generation of workers is paid fairly for whatever work it can find. It?s about spreading the community of solidarity from single shops like the Strand to all workers whose dignity is under attack. And ultimately it?s about going on the offensive. Instead of letting union rights die slowly with the workers of the past, we must spread them to the workers of the future.
Correction: the original version of this post stated that new hires at the Strand make $9.50 an hour. They currently make $9.00 an hour and would make $9.50 under the new proposed contract.
Photo: the Strand bookstore, 2005, by Postdlf via Wikimedia Commons