Battle looms at NYC's Strand

By David Judd

NEW YORK--Spend any time walking around Manhattan, and you're sure to see a tote-bag advertising the Strand, an independent bookstore established in 1927. For 30 years, the Strand has also been a union shop, with its employees among the lucky 5.4 percent of retail workers who are organized.

But the store's ownership is trying to change that now by imposing a union-busting contract.

Over the past year, the owners have increased the number of nonunion managers to more than 30, relative to around 150 union employees. As a press release from Strand workers explains, "This weakens the union's numbers, since much of the clerical work performed by managers could be performed just as easily by rank-and-file workers."

Now, management has escalated its attack, with an attempt to impose a two-tier wage system. This, the workers note, is a classic union-busting technique, which "inevitably undermines solidarity between new and senior union members." The proposed contract also includes a doubling of health insurance premiums and a reduction in time off by almost half.

But Strand workers, part of the United Auto Workers Local 2179, are fighting back. They've begun collaborating with the Occupy Wall Street working group, Occupy Your Workplace, to defend their living standards and ability to organize.

To start, workers are trying to put public pressure on the Strand's ownership, with a press campaign that takes advantage of the bookstore's iconic status in the New York literary scene. The union hasn't made any explicit strike threat, but if Strand ownership doesn't back down, individual workers have told the media, "a strike is never out of the question."

As one Strand worker, Olivia Rosane, said in an interview, this isn't an isolated struggle:

There's been a national trend, starting with the auto industry in 2008, of using the recession to push two-tier contracts and a cutback in union rights, which, of course, will last past the recession. Something like this almost made SEIU cleaners in New York strike in December, but they ended up beating back the two-tier system.

Strand ownership, following the trend, is claiming poverty--specifically, that competition with online retailers is forcing its hand. But the owners have refused to provide either the union or media outlets with numbers to back up their claims.

As Rosane added: "Every time ownership wins one of these fights, it's a harmful precedent for workers and employers everywhere...But when a union stops it, this sends a message everywhere that this is not something you can push people into. An injury to one, an injury to all--victory for one, victory for all."