When the union contract at Strand Bookstore expired last summer, the workers did not anticipate spending ten months engaged in a dispute that would fundamentally strengthen their voice on the job and draw the support of labor activists throughout New York City. On June 15, workers at Strand – who are represented by the United Autoworkers (UAW) Local 2179 – voted to ratify a new contract which prevents the company from making significant cuts to personal and vacation days and maintains cost-of-living wage increases and an affordable health insurance plan. While the contract was itself an achievement, the ten-month period leading up to its agreement proved to be where the power lay. In this time, Strand workers engaged in a battle that fundamentally altered their relationship with management and the union – building shop floor power beyond the scope of what a good contract could offer.
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Cyrus Kleege, a shop steward with UAW Local 2179, who has been working at Strand for seven and a half years, said that solidarity on the shop floor and support from labor groups throughout the city allowed him and his coworkers to “prevent the company from being able to achieve the worst of what they wanted to achieve.”
The battle at Strand began shortly after the previous contract expired on August 30, 2011. Workers learned of the company’s plans for drastic cutbacks and began regularly meeting with their negotiating committee.
“Once we knew … how [the company was] negotiating and the offers that they gave us initially, people really felt that they had to fight back. The cutbacks management was imposing wasn’t a marginal thing that we could just ignore” said Kleege.
“I think the biggest reason people began to meet, began to care, began to engage in this manner, was the company was looking for unprecedented demands,” added Will Brobowski, a longtime employee who has been a shop steward at Strand for the past eight and a half years. “People were just legitimately concerned about their own livelihoods.”
As the workers continued meeting, local groups such as Occupy Your Workplace (OYWP) and the Occupy Wall Street Labor Outreach Committee began offering their support to the workers.
Sam Talbot, a participant in OYWP, said this support was just as important as shop floor solidarity. “We get energy from their struggle and give it back to them by letting them know that other people out there care what happens. The worst thing for a union shop is to feel that their struggle is just a dead end that doesn’t reconnect to the larger whole,” Talbot said.
While building a ground battle throughout the fall and into the winter, the company dragged its feet and made few concessions to the needs of its workers. According to Brobowski, Strand argued that they needed to impose significant cuts because the economy was “tough.”
“Strand’s logic has always been couched in terms like ‘the book business is tough nowadays,’ and ‘the economy is bad nowadays,'” said Brobowski. Meanwhile, the company was bragging about its profitability – especially during the holidays, when the staff was told that Christmas was a record-breaking season.
The busy shopping season came and went and soon January passed, then February and March, and “nothing was happening,” said Brobowski. At that point, the workers went to the media to put more pressure on the company and accelerate the process. After a few key stories appeared in local outlets, the company came back to the table with a final offer – one that sought to reduce benefits, impose an 18-month wage freeze and which would effectively dissolve the strength of the union. The workers voted this down and coordinated a May 1 demonstration at the store with OYWP and other labor supporters, with hundreds in attendance calling for a fair contract. When it was clear the company would not concede, the union called in a federal mediator. Mediation talks continued from May until June, and workers maintained media attention and actions at the store. Finally on June 15, the members voted to ratify a new contract.
Overall, the workers at the Strand believe that what began as a contract dispute transformed into something much more powerful than simply getting the company to agree to fair treatment. The workers found a stronger voice through their solidarity on the shop floor and reinvigorated a greater sense of union pride.
“The past few months definitely contributed to a culture where workers are proud to be union members and believe that the union really is there to work in our interests as long as we have solidarity with each other,” said Kleege.
Talbot added that building shop floor power was not just about fair contracts or relying on the union to resolve disputes. “We can’t be passive and rely solely on union officers. Rank-and-filers, stewards and activists all have to take an active role in leading our own fights. And we have to stay united,” he said.
“When we feel that coworkers or union officials are not being militant enough … we have to build the power from the shop floor and sweep them along. This is where union power comes from,” he added.
At Strand, the fight for a fair contract will resonate for years – both arming the workers with knowledge and support for the next contract battle in two years and unifying them in their day-to-day experiences on the shop floor.