Guitar Center Employees Unionize in New York

Kathleen Hanna hails the move: 'All employees should have a living wage and the ability to organize'

Guitar Center
Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo
Guitar Center
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Employees at Guitar Center's flagship store in Manhattan overwhelmingly voted on Friday to form a union of its 57 retail workers. The new bargaining unit will press the company for improved working conditions and a reversal of declining wages at the 14th Street store. The national Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) orchestrated Friday's win, which marks the first in a series of anticipated union votes at the company's stores around New York City and potentially the rest of the country. To preempt further votes to certify, Guitar Center's management has launched a messaging campaign to educate its employees at nonunion stores about the supposed pitfalls of labor organizing.

"We always want to have a working environment that our folks love, and it's unfortunate that we now have a third party involved," says Dennis Haffeman, executive vice president of human resources for Guitar Center, a $2.1 billion retail chain owned by Bain Capital. "We're constantly listening to our employees' needs so that Guitar Center can be the best work environment in the music industry and, quite frankly, the best in retail."

RWDSU began focusing on Guitar Center in late 2012 after workers approached the national union complaining of worsening compensation, which they said came mainly in the form of falling sales commissions. "I'm earning significantly less than I used to," says Brendon Clark, 28, a pro-union sales associate at the 14th Street store. After four years with the company, Clark makes roughly $11 an hour. "During bad months, I've had to sell my instruments and max out credit cards to make rent."

In the weeks before Friday's vote, RWDSU enlisted a slate of left-wing rockers to publicly support the union. Steve Earle, Tom Morello, Ted Leo and Kathleen Hanna are among the musicians that signed onto the union's moveon.org petition.

"I think all employees should have a living wage and the ability to organize," Hanna tells Rolling Stone. The Bikini Kill and Le Tigre singer says she supports the Guitar Center unionization effort not least because well-paying music store jobs help fund struggling musicians. In the absence of such jobs, she says, "Only the trust-fund kids, who don't have to pound the pavement all day, end up being the ones in bands. This makes for a scene that isn't diverse or interesting."

The union has also made much of Guitar Center's owner, Bain Capital, the private equity firm co-founded in 1984 by Mitt Romney. Since Bain bought the company in 2007, Guitar Center has kept its yearly revenue steady while building more stores throughout the country; earlier this year, Bloomberg News reported that, on the whole, Guitar Center is losing money.

In the past, Bain has been accused of overly aggressive tactics to obstruct unions. Anim Arnold, a pro-union sales associate at the 14th Street store, says that, after the union filed for a vote last month, management gathered employees in daily meetings to warn of the dangers of certifying a union. "It felt like reeducation," says Arnold, who produces electronic music in time off from his day job.

Guitar Center's Haffeman says that, in preparation for two more union votes next month, the company is focusing on employees at Guitar Centers in Brooklyn and Queens. "It's really important to have a good education to understand what a union is and what the cost of being in a union is," says Haffeman. "There is the cost of union dues, there is a cost of initiation. There can be a loss of individuality. We just want to make sure that everyone has the whole story."