I helped organize a suburban Mass Guitar Center. Here’s what I learned.
Last month, after many years of organizing and nearly five years negotiating, more than 100 workers from four Guitar Center locations—Las Vegas, Chicago, Manhattan, and Danvers here in Mass—won a contract with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. It wasn’t easy, as the company ran extensive union-busting efforts. But the campaign ultimately won, relying heavily on publicity and garnering several celebrity endorsements. My favorite was Rage Against the Machine guitar player Tom Morello, who at one point even worked with union representatives at a negotiation session with the company.
The contract, which went into effect on July 9, includes higher base wages ($0.50 above minimum starting), 2.75 percent annual raises, more advanced scheduling, affordable (and excellent) healthcare through the union, better job security, and increased availability of full-time classification, all of which are now much more enforceable thanks to a grievance process that was also put in place.
The RWDSU began by organizing workers at large retail outlets in Manhattan, then moving beyond that city. It covers employees in a wide variety of enterprises; the Guitar Center campaign took place alongside initiatives to organize marijuana dispensaries and sex toy shops, while the union also represents workers in fields ranging from cereal production to car washes, some through its affiliation with the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union.
The purchase of Guitar Center by Bain Capital (which now co-owns the company with Ares Management) in 2007 spurred a rapid decline in working conditions, from benefits to pay and commission structures. Turnover increased dramatically, and what was once a reasonably decent job for working musicians slipped away. In just the year and a half that I’ve been at the Danvers store, job descriptions changed at least four times—such announcements were rarely made clear—while an entire level of management was eliminated, an attendance policy was put in place without anyone knowing, and about 20 people quit or were fired. Maximum staffing is 28 people, and a vast majority of the workforce is under 30 years old.
There have also been noncontractual issues in a workplace that corporate tells us supports musicians of every stripe. Our store has struggled with employing women, and rarely has more than one person of color on the payroll at all. There is no sufficient training, and we are often understaffed on difficult shifts. Promises from management have been left unfulfilled; one case, a high-earning and well-liked salesman was fired because he took gig leave (an unpaid day off for a show that is guaranteed by the company). Safety has also been an issue, and two people have fallen off broken ladders. We still do not have access to drinking water other than the bathroom sink. This was bad, low-paid work for young musicians with few employment options.
A few months into my time at Guitar Center, the conditions my coworkers complained about became personal. When I was working in the warehouse, I hurt my back unloading a truck which resulted in several doctors visits and missing two weeks of work, not to mention a potential lifelong injury. My manager told me not to file a report or to claim any lost time because I would be drug-tested and lose my job. It was not a friendly place to work, and it was obvious why people left so quickly.
The organizing campaign began more or less when I was hired. I had heard about the initiative on social media, mostly about Tom Morello’s endorsement. I was unemployed and needed a job that was flexible enough for me to continue playing with my band, Tigerman Woah, and a friend at Guitar Center said that his store was hiring. I made the connection and reached out to an organizer at the RWDSU to see what they thought.
With my friend’s blessing and leadership, we began to organize the warehouse. This was probably the easiest part, since the lowest-paid and hardest-working folks in the store wanted more. Going into sales was trickier, but by relying on relationships that had been built up over the past six or seven years, we drummed up significant interest. There were some problem workers, loudmouths, and gossipers, but we managed to create a tight and dedicated leadership core within about four months.
Meanwhile, the RWDSU successfully sued Guitar Center (via the National Labor Relations Board) for bargaining in bad faith, illegal union-busting efforts, and a litany of other charges. This put our store in a holding pattern. We had countless secret shop floor conversations and 10 pm meetings in my living room, despite 6 am shifts the next day, mapping the relationships in the store to see who we should approach next and who we couldn’t trust. We even listened to recordings from other stores, as organizers fought with managers and friends and union busters. We were gearing up to fight, but also holding steady to see if we might get voluntary recognition as part of the NLRB settlement. This was a point of contention internally and between our committee and the union, but we eventually got voluntary recognition, and our campaign continued as we got 90 percent of the store to sign union cards.
In mid-June, I went to New York with two other leaders from my store to join delegates from the other three stores who were bargaining with Guitar Center. Considering the history, we were not expecting a win. The first day was essentially training for us, since the union’s representatives did all of the bargaining. But at the urging of my co-workers from Danvers, we did agree to shift away from the pay and commission structure that our union had initially proposed, since it could have yielded negative pay impacts on part-time workers and because the company seemed unwilling to accept it anyway. Eventually, Guitar Center agreed to the change, which won unanimous support from all employees.
The negotiation itself was stressful, but we kept a hard face in front of the enemy, strategically reacted to concessions, and kept focused for the entire 8-hour meeting. The company’s executive on hand kept trying to act relatable and make jokes, but there was no fooling us, as we had heard that he once told a worker, “If you wanted to make more money, you should have gone to med school.” Plus we had momentum with us. Guitar Center’s credit rating had recently been lowered, and it had just lost a federal lawsuit, so the company’s position weakened, and it became clear that its negotiators had been sent to make a deal and get its name out of the news.
We left that day with a national contract, and proceeded to have many drinks to celebrate. Every store has since unanimously ratified the contract. In Danvers, we are now organized through the RWDSU’s New England Joint Board, and our managers, many of whom had been fed the typical anti-union lies about workplace troubles and losing control of their stores, are finally easing down from high-alert. There are still occasional disputes and many questions, we are all adjusting to the workers’ victory, but the atmosphere inside the store appears to be returning to normal. Steward training starts in October, and the North Shore Labor Council is giving us an award at its annual legislative dinner in September.
I’m not sure how much longer any of us will work at Guitar Center or what the future of the company holds. Retail is a difficult industry. I learned a lot about unions and the labor movement, but also about the most important things in life, like connecting with people across differences to build a better future together. I know that my friends and I are more secure in our jobs, and more secure in ourselves and our lives. This was an empowering process for us all, and as we continue to bring in new hires, I keep hearing this story being told openly behind registers, and seeing it reflected on our nametags and whenever any of us thanks a customer for shopping union.
The author is an organizer and musician and plays guitar in the band Tigerman Woah.