Management propaganda should be best ignored, but I find myself
unable to resist writing a response to the odious union-busting
rhetoric being spewed by Dan Smith of Borders Group Inc.
(Borders treats employees fairly, acting in ‘good faith,’
10/22/03).

Smith doesn’t seem to understand the concept of unions when he
writes that Borders wishes to treat all its employees the same.
Unions can bargain only on behalf of their own members, which
precludes the workers at Store 001 from making demands for
across-the-board changes to the way Borders exploits its workers.
But rest assured that this is the way corporate headquarters wants
it; I know many of the workers in that store and I am confident
that they would like nothing more than to improve the working
conditions of all Borders workers internationally. They will do so
one store at a time, if necessary, but this is certainly a fight
that extends beyond a single store.

Nor does Smith understand the concept of fairness. How can he
claim that Borders treats its employees fairly when it pays its
workers so poorly? It has become fashionable for some to defend
corporate America’s refusal to pay workers a reasonable (leave
aside the “romantic notion of a living wage”) wage on the grounds
that if workers don’t want those jobs they should get another. Such
a claim is naive and irresponsible for it ignores the reality of an
American economy in which most jobs are in the retail sector. (Oh!
That sound you just heard was another batch of high-tech
engineering jobs being outsourced to India by a corporation
claiming “competitive pressures.”) No responsible union member will
deny the difficulties of competing in a sluggish market, but the
fact is that Borders succeeded by having a workforce it once
treated as professionals within the company rather than as pawns in
a narrow-minded effort to maximize profit.

Finally, the “facts” Smith purports to report are not facts, but
alternative interpretations of events that occurred. Notice he
doesn’t deny that the cleaning work was outsourced, he merely
argues that Borders has the same arrangement it did before the
union vote. This is true but what he doesn’t mention was that
changes in work environment motivated the vote in the first place.
Ditto for changes in staffing level. Try calling the store sometime
and see how many times the phone rings before someone answers. Much
to the embarrassment of the workers, who genuinely care about
customer service, there are fewer customer service desks in the
store (does anyone else remember being able to have questions
answered at the front info desk, the hold desk, the second floor
desk, two separate locations in the music store?) and fewer workers
assigned to those desks than ever before. The result is that fewer
workers are expected to do more work and customers get the shaft.
Yes, Smith will undoubtedly tell you that the number of workers in
the store is the same as before the vote but don’t be deceived by
his trickeration. Borders is hiring workers but it hires few
booksellers each time and replace them with cash register clerks,
many of whom are kept at part-time hours so that Borders doesn’t
have to provide them with benefits.

Despite Smith’s protestations, the facts are clear in this case.
These are not selfish workers making unreasonable demands. These
are adult professional workers who are convinced of their own
self-worth and refuse to denigrate the profession of bookselling
any longer. And, most importantly, the Ann Arbor community has
shown that it supports these workers and will continue to do so
should the workers exercise their right to strike. Should that day
come, I, like many of my friends and colleagues, will honor that
picket line and I ask that you do too.

Nooruddin is an alum and professor at Ohio State
University.

 

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