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Guitar Center Workers In Las Vegas Vote To Unionize, Marking Third Union Win This Year

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GUITAR CENTER UNION
Guitar Center workers in Las Vegas voted to unionize, making it the third such store this year. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File) | AP
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Following in the footsteps of colleagues in New York and Chicago, employees at a Guitar Center store in Las Vegas voted on Friday to unionize. If the federal labor board ratifies the election, the store will be the third location in the Bain Capital-owned music equipment chain to go union this year.

The workers voted 14 to 5 in favor of joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, according to union officials.

Guitar Center's flagship store in Manhattan became the chain's first union shop earlier this year. That election was followed by two unsuccessful union bids in Brooklyn and Queens, and another successful one in Chicago. Union officials said they will continue trying to organize Guitar Center workers around the country, especially given the apparent victory at Town Square in Las Vegas.

Doug Simpson, the employee who spearheaded the union effort at the Vegas location, said he hoped a union contract could ultimately lead to better job security, better health benefits and more "respect" from management. Simpson said he reached out to RWDSU after his wife read about the Manhattan shop's vote earlier this year.

"It feels really good, like there's hope to turn this into a decent job," said Simpson, 58, a salesperson in the audio department. "It all boiled down to a lack of respect and the company trying to get more out of us for less money."

Dennis Haffeman, vice president of human resources at Guitar Center, said the RWDSU campaign was about generating money for the union. He said the company recently revised its compensation and benefits packages, raising base pay and adding four paid holidays for workers at non-union stores.

The company is keeping the status quo at the union shops out of respect for the bargaining process, Haffeman said, not to punish workers there.

"RWDSU is campaigning not just with us but elsewhere. They have a business model that they need to maintain," he said. "We've made so many substantive change that have been really exciting."

As HuffPost reported before the Manhattan vote, some Guitar Center employees said they believed working conditions at the retailer had declined since it was purchased for $2.1 billion by Bain in 2007. Several complained to HuffPost specifically about the pay system: Salespeople earn a modest base pay, plus commission, but don't see any commission unless they hit a certain amount of sales -- a process known as "fading" against the base pay.

Workers also said they felt pressured by management to sell additional product warranties, which are profitable for retailers but can be a difficult sell to wary shoppers.

After the unionization of the Chicago store, Guitar Center said it was in the process of raising the base pay for many workers, though the chain noted it had started that process before it became aware of the union campaign. Whereas workers typically earned a base pay of roughly the minimum wage before, many of them have been bumped up to around $9 or $9.50.

The average median pay for a retail salesperson -- now the most common job in America -- was $20,990 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many such workers don't have basic benefits like paid sick days, and can't afford the employer-based health coverage they're offered. Due to the industry's high turnover rate, workers in retail can be notoriously difficult to organize for labor activists.

Guitar Center workers, however, are something of a different case. The employees there tend to be musicians themselves, many of them hoping their day job can underwrite their music careers at night. According to Phil Andrews, RWDSU's director of retail organizing, this common bond has been crucial throughout the unionization effort, as management and company consultants try to persuade workers not to vote union.

"[Retail] jobs by design are low wage and high turnover. People don't have a strong commitment to it," said Andrews, who's a musician himself, in the band Gay Panic. "In this case, these folks are friends outside of work. They have similar dreams. They support each other. They go to each others' shows. When we met them, we saw that's the way it works."

Workers at the Manhattan and Chicago stores are currently negotiating their first contracts.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum previously told HuffPost that he thought the grievances of the Guitar Center employees who voted union were emblematic of broader trends in the retail industry, as well as of the economy at large.

"The campaign is important because it typifies what has happened in our economy, where it's workers bearing the brunt of Bain's acquisition desires," Appelbaum said. "I think that what happens to workers at Guitar Center is symbolic of what's happening to retail workers across the country ... Every retail worker should be concerned about this fight."

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