Borders Puts It in Writing

Just over a year ago the staff at Borders Books & Music in Lakeview made retail history when they became the first employees of a giant bookstore chain to vote for a union, Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. But since then the employees have spent many long and frustrating months trying to iron out a contract with Borders management. As recently as three weeks ago, UFCW representative and former Borders employee Greg Popek wasn’t certain the Lakeview staff would get a satisfactory contract. But after refusing to budge on key economic issues, Borders management suddenly handed the employees’ negotiating team a revised proposal for a three-year contract on September 29. The contract was subsequently ratified by a margin of 29 to 8, though more than half the staff has turned over since last year’s union vote. Chris Grant served on the employee team during the entire 12-month negotiation; he admits he was somewhat surprised by the company’s sudden change of heart. Dave Helland, another member of the employee committee, is just glad to have the whole thing behind him: “It sure wasn’t fun, and it certainly wasn’t intellectually stimulating.”

Last year Borders urged employees to deal with the company directly, but now the chain appears ready to work with, or at least tolerate, a union. Marilyn Slankard, vice president of marketing for Borders, says, “We are pleased the employees have chosen to ratify the contract, though the company still would prefer to work directly with employees.” Some Borders staffers speculate that the company delivered an acceptable contract to forestall a possible strike. According to Grant, union leaders in the store had begun to ask if staffers would be willing to walk out, and a picket line would have generated bad publicity for the image-conscious company as the holiday season approached. Popek confirms, “One of the things Borders fears most is bad publicity.”

Grant says the employees went into the negotiations seeking improvements in four areas–wages, work hours, health care, and grievance procedures–and they won at least some of what they wanted in all four areas. Employees came away from the bargaining table with a clear grievance procedure in writing and a guaranteed 40-hour work week, up from 37 and a half hours. The store has doubled from two to four the number of “lead clerks,” who get slightly higher pay and serve as liai-sons between labor and management. But Grant admits that employees gained less ground on wages and health care. The starting wage remains $6.50, with 25-cent raises at six months and one year; the contract calls for all employees with more than a year’s service to receive an annual raise of 4.5 percent–about the same as they’ve gotten for the last two years–yet it also requires the Lakeview store to match the raise given at any other Borders if it’s higher. Staffers will still forfeit a large chunk of their paychecks for health care premiums, though now Borders must give employees ample notice of any intended change in provider. Employees will receive a one-time signing bonus of $150, but that doesn’t begin to cover their annual union dues of $240.

Though the Lakeview store is the first in the Borders chain to get a contract, negotiations are ongoing at three other stores, in Des Moines, New York City, and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Slankard declined to speculate on what impact the Lakeview contract would have on those negotiations: “We will continue to work with each one of the union locals in good faith, as we have indicated we would.” Grant says the Lakeview contract may not be everything he hoped for, but he still believes it will prove a useful “building block” for future contracts.

Aron Packer Leaves the Building

The Aron Packer Gallery, located on the second floor of the Flat Iron Building, is packing it in this weekend. Packer, who specialized in self-taught and folk art, says the changing Wicker Park scene contributed to his decision. “In the last two years, this has become more of a restaurant, cafe, and bar area.” While he’s shutting down in Wicker Park, Packer says he doesn’t plan to leave the art business. “I hope to curate a few shows in other spaces while I look for a new gallery in or near River North.” But he’s in no rush, preferring to wait for the right spot. “I would rather save my money.”

Film Fest’s Comeback Trail

Two years ago the Chicago International Film Festival was in a state of upheaval. Ellis Goodman, then chairman of the board, was demanding the resignation of founder and artistic director Michael Kutza, Kutza was threatening legal action, and board members were busy taking sides. Aside from the ugly infighting, the festival’s biggest problem at the time was a crippling deficit of half a million dollars. But as the 33rd annual event unspools, the festival seems to have stabilized. After failing to oust Kutza, Goodman resigned from the board, but a source familiar with the situation says he was instrumental in reducing the debt to $100,000. Last year’s slimmed-down festival broke even, according to board chairman Daniel Coffey, and this year’s might even turn a profit. For the first time in recent history, all films will be screened at one location: the Cineplex Odeon multiplex at 600 N. Michigan. Organizers hope the downtown site will boost attendance, but some observers say small seating capacity could limit the box-office take for more popular attractions: the largest theater at 600 N. Michigan seats only 282, in contrast to the 750-seat capacity of last year’s anchor theater, the Music Box.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dave Helland and Chris Grant photo by Terry Wiley Popp Photography.