Shelving the Unions

A Borders union-busting manual gets leaked on the Web

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In February of 1996, the employees of Borders store #21 in Philadelphia, Penn., unsuccessfully attempted to unionize under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies. Since that time, employees at several other Borders have flirted with various unions, usually either the Wobblies or the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Four stores wound up voting to unionize, all with the UFCW, although one of them subsequently voted to sever ties with the union.

Borders, the second largest bookstore chain in the country, hasn’t taken the organizing efforts sitting down. In September of 1996, corporate headquarters sent their stores a manual helpful hints for union-busting, written by the company’s vice president of human resources Anne Kubeck. The document, titled “Union Awareness Training For Borders Managers” discusses everything from Borders’ position on unions (they’re not in favor of them) to background information on the Wobblies and UFCW to what managers can or cannot discuss with employees.

Unfortunately for Borders, the manual was leaked and can now be downloaded from the Web. (Borders confirms that the document on the Internet is authentic.)

Since our esteemed namesake, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, was herself a Wobblie, we at the MoJo Wire thought the manual might be worth a read. (OK, it’s the humor value that really makes it worth reading.) Many of the “early signs of union activity” felt like business as usual to us. But then again, what do we know? We feel overqualified and underpaid ourselves. Some samples from the manual:

Early Signs of Union Activity

  • Employees gather in small groups of twos and threes and immediately halt their conversations when managers approach.

  • Employees start spending more than their normal or allotted time on break and are often late getting back to work.

  • Employees who are not normally seen talking to one another begin associating more regularly. Strange alliances begin to form.

  • Employees start having regular meetings or bar nights without inviting managers, back office employees, trainers, or lead clerks.

  • New vocabulary may creep into employee conversations. Union terms such as seniority, grievance, bumping, job security, job posting, etc. may appear in conversations. Normal break time and lunchroom conversations may shift from the personal to talk of benefits, pay, job security, and company direction.

  • Cartoons and notes that take shots at the company or at the managers start appearing.

Other Examples of Unintentional Humor:

“Being open, communicative and honest from the start can often eliminate the chance that employees will seek out a union, or become involved if they are approached.” [MoJo note: Which is precisely why you would want to circulate this information in a manual marked “Confidential,” right?]

“Borders is a national corporation with a large pool of full-time employees who generally tend to be a little left of center. We are a very high growth company which has undergone a great deal of change in the last two years. Change is unsettling.”

The complete manual, and there are plenty of other good parts to read, can be found the IWW Web page.

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And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

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