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Axe to Grind: More Guitar Center Workers In Tune With RWDSU

May 2, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco

Guitar Center

Brooklyn, NY - Guitar Center salespeople in Brooklyn who are finding it increasingly tougher to make it ever since Bain Capital bought the company a fews years back, have followed their counterparts in Manhattan and filed a bid to become part of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU], LaborPress has learned.

Sales staff at Guitar Center’s flagship store on West 14th Street filed an election petition a couple of weeks ago, and are slated to hold a vote on May 24. Now, the company’s music experts working across the street from the Barclays Center have filed their own election petition even as management has stepped up efforts to turn employees against the union.

“It’s getting harder for the RWDSU to come into the store and talk to people,” Flatbush salesperson Ernest Hampson said. “They’ve come into the store and taken people out to lunch to explain the situation, which is really a good thing. But managers all know what they look like, and so they’re pretty much asked to leave as soon as the managers see them. It looks like the managers are on patrol for them.”

Employees working out of Guitar Center stores in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, say that managers have also taken to denouncing the union daily at morning staff meetings, as well as approaching salespeople individually. 

“They’ve definitely pulled people aside and said they don’t think unions are a good idea,” Manhattan Guitar Center employee Anim Arnold said. “They say, ‘Oh, unions don’t have anything to offer. It’s not the 1920s. We’re not children in coal mines. We’re fine.’”

According to Arnold, at least one outspoken pro-union worker at the flagship store was recently fired, while management urged the rest of the staff to call employees at a Guitar Center on the west coast where efforts to unionize a San Francisco outlet fizzled not long ago.

“We’ve had a vocal supporter of the union let go a day or two before we filed [the election petition],” Arnold said. “It’s supposedly unrelated, but you definitely wonder. When the San Francisco store tried to unionize, management told us, ‘Hey, the union came in there and tried to get them, and they rode them out of town. You should call the people in San Francisco and ask them about it.’ But anytime we’ve spoken to someone at the San Francisco store who was there at the time or knows about it, said that within four to five months all of the vocal pro-union people were gone - fired for some reason or another.”

Although Guitar Center has reportedly retained the services of a notorious anti-union outfit called Jackson Lewis, the RWDSU is not concerned that the firm will be successful should it attempt to upset the upcoming scheduled elections.

“Some of their tricks are adding more people to the bargaining unit, or making outrageous claims about the way the company works, and really holding everything up in court,” RWDSU organizer Phil Andrews said. “But it seems they’re not going to be doing that this time. We think that’s largely because of the public attention this has gotten.”

An online petition in support of Guitar Center workers has garnered thousands of signatures including those of high-profile recording artists Tom Morello, Steve Earle, Kathleen Hanna, Ted Leo and others.

“The online petition has really struck a chord with workers across the country,” Andrews said. “If you read through the list of the signers, many of them have left really long comments about how they currently work at a guitar Center, or formerly worked at Guitar center, and that everyone is experiencing these issues across the country in a similar way.”

In 2007, failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s old firm Bain Capital, bought Guitar Center for $2.1 billion. 

“I was with the company before Bain Capital owned us, and I’ve definitely seen the changes every year,” Hampson  said. “People were making a lot more money. Salespeople could be their own salespeople. They really didn’t have this blanket company watching their every move. You had more leeway to be the kind of salesperson that you wanted to be. And that way, you actually built up your own clientele a lot easier.”

Since Bain Capital took over, Guitar Center workers say that not only are salespeople being saddled with extra responsibilities they never had before, but promotions are meaningless because they carry no additional pay.

“It used to be that the higher up you moved in the company, the more you got paid,” Hampson said. “Now, it doesn’t matter if you’re a salesperson, a department manager or assistant manager, you only make more money if you meet a certain amount of sales. But all of sudden, you have all of these other responsibilities that go against you.”

Guitar Center’s revamped pay structure has led to a high turnover rate and an increasingly younger and more inexperienced sales team. The retailer has traditionally attracted seasoned musicians who knew their instruments and assorted gear inside and out. 

Before joining Guitar Center, Arnold worked independently mixing and mastering records, booking shows and running his own events company. 

“We add a lot of value to the company,” Arnold said. “We all have expertise in our fields, years of playing in bands, going to school, working in studios, working on big records. Multiple people here have even won Grammys, and they’re struggling to get by. Being on the sales floor, you know what kind of value you bring to the company. You know that just not any person can do the job that you do. So, we’re left wondering why is it we have to struggle so mightily to make ends meet. And why we get penalized for things like not being able to sell enough extended warranties.”

Guitar Center staffers say that an increasing number of customers are “kind of appalled” when they learn about working conditions at the music retailer. 

“I’ve always said that if my really good clients knew how little I get paid here, they’d probably stop shopping at Guitar Center,” Hampson said. 

Without a union, Arnold fears that he and his co-workers have no voice.

“The company has no obligation to sit down with us at the same table and talk about things,” Arnold said. “They can say that they’re listening, and everything can go in one ear and out the other. With the union, we can sit down and negotiate a contract. And everybody knows where things are."

Despite the pushback from Guitar Center management here in New York City, the RWDSU plans to win locally and press organizing efforts nationally.

“We’re looking at this certainly as a regional fight to start - but then we absolutely want to expand this to other areas of the country,” Andrews said.

 

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