If you want to hear what chaos sounds like, open the door of any Guitar Center music store. You’ll hear hundreds of customers at any given time plucking strings, slapping skins, or jamming on keys. But there is one sound that the untrained ear may not hear upon walking in the front door – and that is the voice of the workers coming together to form a union.
“At the end of the day I love working at Guitar Center, but I’m not making enough money to live,” says Brianna Wolf, who has worked at the Manhattan flagship location for eight months. Wolf is a singer, songwriter, guitarist and pianist; she says she feels very lucky to still be eligible for her parents’ health insurance plan. However, she told Allegro that many Guitar Center employees are in need of insurance and “are not being compensated for the work they put in.”
Founded in 1959, Guitar Center has adapted, morphed, and expanded over the years to become the largest musical instrument retailer chain in the world. Although originally founded by Wayne Mitchell, the company saw its greatest expansion during the 1990s and early 2000s under CEO and President Larry Thomas. It was then that Guitar Center acquired Musician’s Friend, Music & Arts, four large stores in Texas from Hermes, Woodwind and Brasswind, Music 123, and Lyons Music.
One of the things Guitar Center has become known for over the years is having a very knowledgeable staff. This is due largely to the fact that it is a day job for working musicians who know first-hand what the needs of their fellow musicians are. For years, these musicians were able to work with instruments and fellow musicians all day, while receiving benefits, decent wages and commissions, and respect for the hard work that they do. This was the case until 2007 when, to paraphrase the great Thelonious Monk, in walked Bain.
Bain Capital took over the company in 2007 for $2.1 billion. This price included the company’s existing debt, which current findings show to be $1.6 billion, resulting in Moody’s downgrading the company’s credit in 2010. If recent history has taught us anything, looking at a company run by Bain that’s $1.6 billion in debt with CEOs making an average of $479,043 in base salaries, it’s easy to figure out how the workers on the floor are being treated.
Since Bain has taken over, employees have seen their benefits cut, wages and commissions lowered, and the introduction of a policy the retail world refers to as “fading.”
Ernest Hampson, a worker at the Brooklyn location, explains “fading” like this: “Salespeople are paid a minimum wage ($7.25 per hour). In addition, salespeople are paid a certain percentage from the items they sell. In order to see any commission, a worker must make enough sales to cover their hourly rate. Say you would make $1,000 in your minimum wage earnings. A salesperson would have to sell roughly $7,000 in profit ($21,000 gross sales) to see a commission check. Now, if you hit those numbers, you are still only making a little more than minimum wage.” Hampson estimates that after commission, most employees are making around $8 per hour, hardly a livable wage in New York City.
That money is bad enough, but the company makes it even more difficult for employees to hit their numbers by assigning them more and more non-selling jobs. Hampson says that “workers are expected to merchandise, take care of online orders, clean bathrooms, clean the break room, tech support gear, etc. All of which prevents the salesperson from making sales and making a commission check.”
With working conditions steadily declining, it was only a matter of time before the workers reached a tipping point. They asked for help from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Within six months, 85 percent of the sales staff signed a union card. With that kind of union support and momentum, it comes as no surprise that Bain isn’t about to take that sitting down.
Since workers began their campaign, Bain has hired the well-known anti-union firm Jackson Lewis to quell the workers’ efforts to organize. Phil Andrews, director of the Retail Organizing Project, explains that the tactics used by Jackson Lewis include “captive audience” meetings. “Obviously, labor law is totally skewed in favor of the company,” Andrews told Allegro. “The company is allowed to hold endless mandatory meetings where they try to confuse and intimidate workers. They’re allowed to tell outrageous lies as long as they use legal disclaimers such as ‘the union could…’ or ‘no one knows what will happen, but…’” Workers are even being told that if they join the union they can’t take other jobs like performing engagements or teaching lessons. Andrews says they “have brought in a parade of upper level managers and H.R. people, yet the union isn’t allowed to talk to workers at any time on the premises.”
As Allegro goes to press, Guitar Center workers were set to cast their ballots in a formal union election, which is a secret-ballot vote run by the National Labor Relations Board. The election was scheduled for May 24. If a majority of workers vote yes, the store will be legally required to recognize the union and begin negotiating in good faith for a first contract. That election will cover the Manhattan location of the store; workers have also recently organized the Brooklyn location and a union election will hopefully take place there soon.
If everything goes right, the campaign will end with workers gaining the respect and the voice on the job that they deserve. For more information, including to sign a petition of support, see www.bitly.com/rock4rights.