CAN MOTHER KALI'S BOOKS MAKE IT AMID LABOR,
ECONOMIC AND PERSONNEL ISSUES? PART 1
by Aria Seligmann
A sense of righteous indignation fills 19-year-old Tiffany Lee Haggmark's voice as she takes the stage at Sam Bond's on Feb. 4, a night labor activist Anne Feeney is performing. She introduces the women who are part of Industrial Workers of the World local 660, the staff of Mother Kali's books, and explains to the rapt audience that they are having "some struggles as a union trying to get fair treatment; our jobs have been terminated, health benefits are being withheld, and we want jobs with justice."
The crowd applauds.
As Anne Feeney picks up her guitar and begins singing, "You can't scare me, I'm sticking with the union," Haggmark tells her story.
Haggmark's mother died of cancer when she was 13, and during her mother's prolonged illness, Haggmark would walk across the street from the hospital to Mother Kali's, where she would find solace by flipping through the books and magazines. She became acquainted with women's issues and felt at home there. In high school, she earned credits by volunteering at the store, hoping that eventually it would lead to a job, which it did. "I was proud to work there," she says. "I had strong opinions and saw Mother Kali's as a place where women are strong and not afraid to stand up for themselves. Mother Kali's is like a mother to me."
After receiving a letter of termination from the board, she wonders, "How can they let me go so easily? Are they not women?"
"Kali Ma, Mother Kali, give me your courage that I may face my fears. Let me name them; let me offer them to you."
On Friday the 13th of February, a handful of protesters picketed outside Mother Kali's Bookstore on the UO campus strip of East 13th. While they drew would-be customers' attention to the ongoing labor dispute between the bookstore's board and two past staffs, other women entered the store, carrying in Valentine's cookies and brownies, a love offering to new manager Karen Luna, and to the community resource provided by one of the last 66 independent feminist bookstores remaining in the U.S.
Even with the knowledge that Eugene is damned lucky to have such a treasure, however, many formerly loyal customers are finding hard to swallow the type of labor issues Mother Kali's workers have faced over the past year and a half. Issues that were kept publicly mum during the first wave of disgruntlement are now shining in the media spotlight because a second, more outspoken staff has pushed the issues forward.
On Jan. 23 the board delivered termination letters to each of its four staff members, giving one staffer two weeks notice and the rest three weeks notice. About three weeks prior, board told staff they could no longer access their health benefits because of the store's financial difficulties.
But Mother Kali's staff, including current and past booksellers Jessica Ellis, Cheryl RiversHailey, Carly Deicher, Jennifer Goyette, Becca Perry and Sandra Pasman, had unionized last April, new staff members had joined the union since, and as members of the IWW Local 660, were entitled to bargain the details of their termination.
(Former manager Teri Ciacchi was also listed as a union member, but managers with authority are not entitled to be part of unions, according to the NLRB's Jeffrey Jacobs, who is investigating the Mother Kali's complaint.)
Whether or not the board met its obligations in allowing the staff to bargain is a matter of debate. On Jan. 27, the board held a meeting at the store, allowing staff to sit down and discuss their terminations. Staff showed up 10 minutes later, after joining protesters outside, and handed the board a copy of the wrongful termination complaint filed with the NLRB. At that point, the board said the meeting was rescheduled, but two days later, before a new meeting took place, workers were handed final letters of termination and asked to turn in their keys.
The board said the intention was to close the store and reorganize it before reopening, and that staff would be paid through their original termination dates. Workers say they were locked out.
Just before this story went to press, staff members were paid through their termination dates.
Making matters murky is the fact the staff had not yet bargained a contract, despite several attempts to begin the process. IWW representative Jeanine Malito, who says she is not an official representative, but a community activist helping the women, had begun contacting board member Donella Alston last April to begin the process of bargaining. But Alston was busy. On June 20, she did send an e-mail to then manager Teri Ciacchi saying the board would soon have the documentation the staff could use to build upon in their process of collective bargaining. Those documents were not received by staff, but neither did the staff begin writing up a contract.
"Staff talked about things they would want, but it all seemed so in flux, and the priority was to save the store," says Malito. Community meetings were held over last summer to discuss labor issues while at the same time talk about the future of Mother Kali's.
"We didn't start writing a contract. I was the host at the board fund-raiser at Keystone. I greeted people and thanked them for coming," says Malito.
As recently as Jan. 26, the staff again asked to bargain. On Jan. 29, current board President Kathleen Kendrick acknowledged the efforts of staff to bargain in good faith but declined to do so, saying board members were too busy as they all work full-time jobs, according to staff.
NLRB's Jacobs is still investigating the case and says these matters can take four to eight weeks from the date (Jan. 31) the complaint is made, and that after he finishes his reports, he'll forward the case to his boss in Seattle who will make the final decision.
"The issue becomes that of the reason somebody was let go," he says. "An employer that has become unionized does not give up its right to go out of business. The question of whether they will be in business or not is not subject to union negotiations. Given that, if an employer is making a decision to go out of business, there still may be a number of issues that, if a demand is made to negotiate certain things, they may be required to negotiate." Those things include severance pay, when the last day will be, who will be laid off when, etc.
When informed that Mother Kali's had reopened Feb. 9, Jacobs replied, "Oh."
With that bit of information, Jacobs says it is still incumbent upon the staff to demand to bargain the circumstances of the termination. "The union must be the moving party to make a demand," he says, adding that the staff itself does not have the right to bargain, but must go through its representative. The staff calls Malito its IWW rep, but Malito says that the IWW is a democratic, decentralized organization, and that staff members can do their own bargaining.
Another issue is the re-opening of Mother Kali's. The board hired new full time manager Karen Luna to replace part-time co-managers RiversHailey and Pasman, who did not want full time jobs. One part time position was available, and offered to any staff member who wanted to apply for it. As of this writing, none of them have.
"Former employees would have rights to any new jobs before those jobs get offered to anybody else," says Jacobs.
At this point, according to manager Luna, the board has decided not to fill the part-time position, on the advise of its lawyer.
Questions also arise concerning the title of "co-manager." As long as they had no more authority than the rest of the staff, there is no problem with RiversHailey and Pasman being part of the union. But if they did have authority, then the employer "would be violating the law by having somebody in management in a union," says Jacobs.
"Two co-managers would fall into this category and not have any protection of the NLRB. A manager is not an employee. It depends on their authority, not their hours," he says.
But Malito says that isn't a problem. "The board wasn't letting them have any authority," she says.
Last week, the board contacted the former staff, offering mediation. But RiversHailey and Pasman were unavailable at the chosen time, and the mediator picked by the board was unacceptable, as staff was aware she had unsuccessfully mediated between a former staff and a former board.
The staff was directed to a list of mediators kept by EFN, another non-profit whose staff unionized, but "the list was made up entirely of men," says Malito. Currently, the staff is seeking a woman with experience in labor issues to mediate.
|Co-founder Marilyn "Muff" Picariello, 1975|
"Kali Ma, I offer you my pettiness, I offer you my sorrow."
Back to the older staff, and older board. It's déjà vu for Mother Kali's.
Mother Kali's was founded in 1975 by Marilyn Picariello ("Muff"), Kathryn Hunt ("Devi") and Ellen Greenlaw ("E"). The store opened with a shoestring $500 loan from Muff's brother. The three worked the store until 1978 and then left, turning it over to a handful of women who formed a collective to run it. Elizabeth Anne (Izzie) Harbaugh joined in 1979, as did Lorraine Ironplow.
All the women were volunteers. Turnover was rapid as people moved on to take jobs that paid. But Harbaugh and Ironplow stayed on, Harbaugh working more, Ironplow putting in only one or two days per week. By 1982 or '83, says Ironplow, "it didn't make sense" to run the store as a collective, as Harbaugh was working there most of the time, knew everything there was to know, and usually had one younger person working with her whom she could train. "Because it was a collective, the board and staff were the same," says Ironplow, and all agreed Harbaugh could be the manager.
Harbaugh managed the store until she died in 1999.
"She worked for free, lived on her Social Security, PERS and savings," says Ironplow. Harbaugh also put some of her savings into the store, which was also supported by loyal customers' purchases and donations.
"She became the warm, engaging face of Mother Kali's. She was a force of nature; there was no replacement for her." It was Izzie who met new women who came into the store, looking for resources, connections, community. "She's why our customers stayed with us," says Ironplow, who was also Izzie's partner.
In summer of 1999, Tova Stabin entered Mother Kali's as co-manager, along with Jeannie Davis. Nikki Williams, who had worked with Harbaugh, continued through the transition.
Stabin had wandered in and out of Mother Kali's 20 some odd years ago, back when she was doing the national women's bookstore circuit for readings of her own writings. She remembers it as a sweet, small space, filled with a supportive community and friendly people. Stores like it were all over the country: small, collectively run, volunteer supported. There were lots of small women's presses and bookstores in the '70s and early '80s.
In '99, the store was doing well, supported by a loyal customer base and UO professors who ordered their class textbooks there.
In summer of 2002, sales were booming and events, such as Mother Kali's 25th anniversary celebration, brought in thousands of dollars in profits. This, despite the fact that Barnes and Noble, Borders and Amazon.com were pushing small, independent bookstores, especially specialty ones like feminist bookstores, out of business all over the country.
"Great Mother, consume them, cut through them, burn them up."
But despite its success, conflicts in different business styles began to develop between the manager and the board. It just so happened that when things began to erupt in 2002, the conflict was between an already overworked staff and board. "It's a big Catch 22," says Stabin. "It's easy to categorize it as a personality conflict when there was just one person on the board."
That one person was Ironplow, who wanted the staff to have more training in salesmanship and more experienced workers staffing the store; staff took these concerns as criticisms of their performance. With feelings tense, labor issues arose, including Stabin wanting more autonomy as manager, less experienced staffers feeling disrespected and powerless, charges of sexual harassment by senior staff, lack of job descriptions and clear lines of who was doing what and who was in charge of hiring new staff.
Ironplow, already working full time as a network engineer, was putting in 25 volunteer hours per week, helping with books and in the store, pitching in with whatever needed doing.
At this point, Stabin was working 30 hours per week, and she and co-manager Jeannie Davis were splitting managerial duties.
But the power dynamic of having a board member also working in the store was too much for the staff, who had not been there for the collective days of the '70s and early '80s when that's how it was done. Yet because there was a power dichotomy, Ironplow also felt entitled to have the final word.
The staff began to file grievances with the board. Trouble was, some of those grievances were about Ironplow, who, as the board, responded to them and dismissed them as not having merit.
Under pressure, Stabin gave notice of resignation, but offered to stay through October to make it through the textbook rush. She later rescinded that notice, if the board would meet certain staff demands.
"Meanwhile, the board was considering hiring a full-time manager who could assume the entire job, not just part of it, and who understood the importance of sales presence," says Ironplow.
The staff felt Stabin was being forced out and treated unfairly.
The board, which by now included Barb Ryan, agreed to enter mediation with Stabin and the other Kalis' staff.
"Release me from the illusions of separation and ego, free me from the bonds of attachment."
Lezlie Frye was one of those staff members. She began working in Oct. 2000, and by summer '02, had considerable experience and opinions on how the store should be run. She helped compile a list of demands to smooth things out at the store. That list included: Ironplow taking a leave of absence from her board position, to give everyone some breathing room. Ironplow agreed. Staff also wanted no personnel changes through the process, meaning Stabin and staff remained and no new manager was hired.
Ironplow was not to work in the store. "She was considering herself staff and board and that was becoming complicated because of power dynamics," says Frye. "It was like, 'I'm just like you but please put three pieces of tape on this sign instead of two.'" Meanwhile, Frye was thinking, "I'm just a staff member, but no, you're a board member with power and you sign my paycheck."
The staff also wanted a larger board, picked by a three-person advisory committee who would select three more board members, according to Frye.
The mediation failed. Interruptions and arguments ensued. Stabin walked out.
Everyone questioned whether the board's actions were feminist. It was, after all, a feminist bookstore.
Frye says the staff did all the compromising, while Ironplow says she met all of the staff's demands, including benefits. Staff earned benefits if they worked a minimum of 19 hours per week, which some were allowed to do and others not. The manager was given sick and vacation leave.
To solve the board/staff dispute, Frye looked for the bylaws, which she could not find. Frye says Ironplow told her she lost them, but Ironplow says they were there, just out of date.
"We were promised by Barb Ryan the bylaws would not be adjusted until there was a new board. That promise was not followed. Bylaws were rewritten to continue their power," says Frye.
Ironplow says the staff was invited to a meeting with a lawyer to rewrite the bylaws and to have input into the rewriting, but no one showed up.
Staff reached out to the community, to hold a meeting to inform them of what was going on. But Ironplow called her own meeting, same place, same time, and asked the staff to call off theirs. The staff did.
"We were trying to be mensches about it," says Stabin. "We cared about the store."
The summer passed to fall and school began again.
The stress of coursebooks week is intense. "It's what killed Izzie," says Ironplow. "She died a week after, from a brain aneurysm and high blood pressure."
In that week, says Stabin, the store brought in $70,000 in three days. Staff worked grueling 12-hour days. Stabin was given notice that her resignation was still in effect but that she could work through mid-November.
The staff was outraged, feeling she'd been fired. Ironplow says she wasn't fired, that she and Ryan were putting off the decision on what to do about her position, and leaving it for the new board to decide upon. The new board was to take over in November, when Ironplow was to leave.
The staff walked out in protest. No one watched the store.
Ironplow called them in, told them to hand in their keys. They were fired.
There was no community protest.
"On Saturday, me and my co-worker and former worker spent a good 10 hours putting things into order for the new staff and we left. We walked up to Lorraine and gave her our keys and our credit card for ordering books. She said 'thank you' and we walked out. I could not believe she was letting us go, this amazing staff who was totally and completely dedicated to the store, had stayed through several months of hell. That showed me the best interest of the store was less important to her than her desire to control it," says Frye.
Ironplow says she has always had the best interest of the store at heart. She has donated time, money and energy to it. "It's my life's passion," she says. "I don't understand how things got so vitriolic with that staff. They honestly think I'm not a good woman. They think I'm a monster."
Frye says "Money is power and that's one way she's wielded her power at Mother Kali's. It's an issue of class that's yet to be addressed at the store."
"It's true I have more class privilege," says Ironplow. "But the store needed me financially and I was the only one who knew the big picture of how it worked. I worked for free, doing books, computers, taxes, evening staffing. It was hard to find reliable people to do that."
Ironplow thought that Stabin took her desire for Stabin to be a better sales manager to be an indication she thought the staff wasn't doing a good job, and that's a "misunderstanding," she says. "It's easy to overestimate the extent of your own abilities. That's what both Tova and I did." In fact, she adds, "Everyone was busting their butts."
"Give me the power to transform my anger and frustration into clear and powerful action, that I may create healing change in myself and the world."
Why the first staff didn't unionize is the question on many minds. First, Stabin, as manager, couldn't have legally done so, according to NLRB's Jacobs. Furthermore, says Stabin, "we thought it would be a real ugly way for the store to die." And, she adds, "I don't know if we had enough time to make that happen before losing our jobs. But we chose not to. We chose to negotiate through community members."
Stabin also says she didn't want the story splayed out all over the press. "We're a targeted community as it is," she says. "There was also this feeling of, 'this can't happen to us.'"
Part 2 of this story will continue next week.