Guitar Center Staff Organizes
|Guitar Center Staff Organizes
by Nancy Snyder
IT WAS A WELCOME twist of fate: six years after Bain Capital acquired the retail chain store Guitar Center, Bain’s shock and awe strategy of maintaining high profits at the expense of their workforce, led to a successful union organizing campaign. On May 24th of this year, the flagship Guitar Center store located on West 14th Street in Manhattan, enthusiastically voted for union representation by the Retail Whole Department Store Union and are now bargaining for their first contract with Guitar Center.
“We are thrilled about winning this election,” Guitar Center worker Anim Arnold said. “This is the first step in fairness for the work we do and the way we are treated, because the system that Bain Capital has created makes it impossible ffor us to survive. As a musician and proud Guitar Center employee, this is a day I will never forget.”
It was a courageous - and risky - decision for the Guitar Center workforce. They knew they would be hit with the nastiest, most virulent anti-union campaign orchestrated by Bain Capital. In a just released five-year study conducted by Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University Professor and labor expert, documents the marked increased in suppression of private sector organizing that has never been witnessed before. According to Bronfenbrenner, the expected intimidation, harassment and interrogation of those attempting to organize a union are now confronting a mightier, more intractable corporate dominance at the workplace.
Executive Vice-President for Guitar Center’s Human Resources was less than enthusiastic about their employees’ decision to seek union representation and the changes coming to the $2.1 billion chain owned by Bain Capital. “We always want to have a working environment that our folks love, and it’s unfortunate that we now have a third party involved,” he stated. “We’re constantly listening to our employees so that Guitar Center can be the best work environment in the music industry and, quite frankly, the best in retail.”
Ask any Guitar Center employee and they will be quick to refute Haffernan’s claims of the idyllic workplace. In the fall of 2012, a contingent of Guitar Center employees from the Manhanttan store approached the RWDSU and asked for representation.
Before Bain Capital arrived, the Guitar Center salespeople experienced a sense of autonomy, they were able to make decent money and built their own clientele. A large number of Guitar Center staff were professional musicians or were established in the entertainment field. They were respected for their expertise that enhanced the customers’ buying experience at the store.
With the arrival of Bain Capital, came the premise that as their new employers, Guitar Center would be transformed into a lean and mean enterprise going only for the higher profit margin. There was no need to understand music or what the customer wanted: staff were now forced to bring in an abusrdly high number of extended warranties for the store’s products or, they would be encouraged to work elsewhere.
Staff endured the new Bain Capital reality. Compensation for their work, that was determined by a formula for the minimum wage set against any commission they would make, left the staff without a steady paycheck and with the challenge of determining which bills they would pay at the end of the month, or if they had to pawn their own instruments to pay the rent.
Bain Capital fast-tracked Guitar Center on a rapid growth plan. At the time of the 2007 acquisition of Guitar Center there were 200 stores nationwide. It was a rare occurence to open another store. In the past year, ten Guitar Center stores have opened - knowledge of the instruments and of the needs of the musicians they sell to, is not a requirement.
Bain Capital drastically reduced the prices of their stock in hopes of remaining competitive with the internet. Predictably, the rock bottom prices brought little or no commission to the staff and further decimated their paychecks. Staff were working 40-hour work weeks to the best of their potential and pulling down minimum wage.
Once the decision was made to organize their Manhattan store, Guitar Center workers amazed the union busters from the Jackson Lewis firm that was hired by Bain to rid the store of any thought of union recognition at any cost. Any suspected union representative from the RWDSU would be quickly escorted out of the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens stores. There were the mandatory daily staff meetings where staff had to consistently hear of the threats and intimidation that would be their fate if they organized. There would be the one-on-one meetings between staff and their manager where promises would be made to entice the individual away from the union and away from their other co-workers. And, there was always that story of what happened in San Francisco a few years previously: the San Francisco store simply fired the staff that spoke about a union.
But the Manhattan Guitar Center staff remain unmoved.
Brandon Clark, 28 years old and and an employee of Guitar Center since the Bain Capital acquisition in 2007, spoke to The Nation of the great anxiety that permeated the Manhattan store before the representation vote in May. “A lot of people have lost sight of the good things that unions do, mainly building what is the middle class today,” Clark emphasized. “When it all comes down to maximizing profit and the bottomline, there’s no protection for the employee at that point. It’s all focused on the company and how much money they are going to make. I feel like the only way to be heard is to have an actual support where we can collectively sit down and talk things out and I have federal protection.”
Faithful Guitar Center customers became appalled when they learned of the new Bain Capital Guitar Center’s method of operations. To further publicize their need for union protection, an online petition was launched and gained the support of high profitle recording artists such as Tom Morrell, Steve Earle, Kathleen Hanna and Ted Leo among others. The support for a living wage found public support.
Since the May vote, the Manhattan store has begun to work on negotiations for their first contract. The Guitar Center stores in Queens and Brooklyn, hoping the union would cease and desist from organizing their stores, have made enormous promises to their staff to revamp their compensation system. The Queens and Brooklyn staff are waiting to see if such promises will materialize.
As a result of their online petition, the RWDSU began to hear from former and current Guitar Center staff that testified to the urgent need for Guitar Center stores to be organized nationwide. As of this writing, efforts are underway to organize the Chicago Guitar Center. The Chicago campaign has been dubbed “Rock4Rights.” In an August 5th YouTube video, against a backdrop of rock and roll music to raise one’s consciousness, Guitar Center staff proudly state their name and why they are voting for a union.
It is the same story told repeatedly around the country: anyone who works 40 hours a week should be able to live on what they earn.
After the May 24th vote in Manhattan, RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum stated to the Labor Press, “Retail workers in New York are struggling to survive, facing low wages and deteriorating working conditions in retail. Their courage in standing up for themselves sends a powerful message to other Guitar Center workers and all retail workers throughout the country. The old way of doing business at these establishments are over.”
Stay tuned for further organizing successes at Guitar Center in Chicago and throughout the country.
To watch the August 5th YouTube video, please go to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1JYujhFOBQ
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