Guitar Center Unionization Effort Spreads to Chicago

Employees form the company's second-ever retail union, citing unfair wages

Guitar Center, Guitar Center Union, employee, rights, Guitar Center Unionization
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Guitar Center employee helps a customer at a store in Boston, Massachusetts.
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Employees at a Guitar Center store in Chicago voted Friday to form the company's second-ever retail union. This marks an important win for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which, after successfully unionizing a Manhattan Guitar Center in May, suffered setbacks in organizing two other New York stores. The new bargaining unit in Chicago will seek to improve wages and to change the store's sales commission structure. With Friday's success, the union now says that a national organizing effort focused on other Guitar Center stores appears promising.

Ahead of the Chicago vote, Guitar Center – a $2-billion company owned by Bain Capital – engaged in a vigorous campaign to dissuade workers from union participation. "[Friday's] outcome won't be official until the Labor board has ratified the vote count, but what we do know is that so far, the union's campaign hasn't been very successful at all," says Dennis Haffeman, the chain's executive vice president of human resources. "We feel that's because once our associates learn all the facts, they're able to make that important decision for themselves." In June, amid fierce competition between management and pro-union employees, two attempts to unionize Guitar Center stores in Brooklyn and Queens were either unsuccessful or called off.

Brian Webb, a pro-union sales associate at the Chicago store, says he struggles on his pay of roughly $11 an hour. "I make exactly as much as I did when I started here seven years ago," says Webb, 33 – who, like many Guitar Center employees, is also an aspiring musician. (Webb plays guitar and sings in a local band called Jonny Rumble.) "Anyone who works a hard, 40-hour week should be able to earn an honest living," says Webb. "This isn't just about our store – it's part of a larger effort to revive the middle class in this country."

Guitar Center tells Rolling Stone that it is in the midst of a nationwide review of employee compensation, a move it says is unrelated to the recent union activity. The union – which has received backing for its efforts from stars such as Tom Morello and Kathleen Hanna – says it has heard from Guitar Center employees all over the country seeking to organize stores. Although it will not disclose specifics, RWDSU says that all regions are on the table for future organizing.

RWDSU alleges that Guitar Center's management, in addition to frequently making anti-union statements during employee meetings, suggested to Chicago workers that winning a robust union contract could lead management to consider shuttering their entire store. (Guitar Center rejects this assertion as "positively untrue.") Such a threat could have violated laws that govern labor relations. Bain Capital has, in the past, been accused of heavy-handed and even illegal tactics to squash labor-organizing efforts.

Although falling short of accusing the union outright, Guitar Center claims that a Chicago store employee appointed by the company to monitor yesterday's union election found his car disabled the morning of the vote. RWDSU calls the statement a desperate ploy to cast doubt on its overwhelming win. Seventy-six percent of the Chicago store's workers who voted Friday did so in favor of unionization, according to RWDSU.

A primary hope of pro-union Guitar Center employees in Chicago is to change the company's commission structure, generally referred to as "fading." The system requires employees to equal their hourly earnings in unpaid sales commissions before actually earning any money on top of base hourly wages. Workers say that this system does not properly tie pay to merit, as employees who perform well on the sales floor yet must also clock hours on non-sales duties can find themselves at a disadvantage. A large proportion of hours devoted to non-sales duties can leave highly skilled sales associates at or near minimum wage, according to pro-union employees. "The 'fade' has to go," says Webb. "It's basically a method they've devised to effectively dock our pay without actually docking it."

Guitar Center says it is examining the "fade" system in its in-depth analysis of employee compensation. "Our intentions," Haffeman says, "have always been clear to demonstrate to every GC associate in the country that we're listening to their concerns and their ideas, and we're not afraid to take bold action on it as well. "