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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Grand Labor Battle at Grand Opening! Sex Boutique

Dennis Fox

September 23 , 2004

Since opening her "sexuality boutique" 11 years ago in Brookline's high-traffic Coolidge Corner shopping district, Kim Airs has effectively and humorously advocated knowledgeable sex while earning a reputation as a progressive employer. On September 29th, Grand Opening!'s mostly part-time staff will vote to join a union. Despite current tensions, a mutually beneficial, better-than-routine outcome remains possible: a workplace whose approach to labor-management relations is as creative as its pioneering work in sexual satisfaction.

The high-profile Airs is a national speaker who maintains an easy-to-shop website and arranges in-store sexuality classes and at-home Sex Toy Parties. The store itself is more discreet, tucked away on the Coolidge Arcade's second floor far from easily offended passersby. Inside, in an easy-going, informative, non-threatening atmosphere, Airs' well-trained staff of mostly twentysomething women sell books, videos, lotions, toys, and other paraphernalia for tastes conventional and otherwise.

GO!'s primary customers are women who often avoid more stereotypical sex stores in grungier Boston neighborhoods, but the store welcomes men and women alike who suspect there's more to sex than they stumbled across during teenage trial and error. Staff members who identify with Airs' mission to normalize talk about a subject many people whisper about or juvenilize offer recommendations and explain details whenever necessary.

Two years ago Airs opened a second store in Los Angeles, where she now spends most of her time. She says her Massachusetts staff can call her cell phone whenever they want and that local store managers maintain her open door policy. Still, her time and focus are divided, and likely to become moreso: Airs told me she envisions a dozen widely scattered stores someday. Grand Opening! wouldn't be the first socially useful small business with decent labor policies to run into expansion-related turmoil.

GO!'s 14 employees are joining UNITE HERE -- a new merger of the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International that's determined to revitalize the labor movement -- which usually represents workers in large workplaces. A press release says GO! workers object to "the high turnover rate of good employees, the lack of adequate benefits, the lack of a consistently fair living wage, the desire for a meaningful voice in the workplace, and the lack of a formal grievance process, among other issues."

According to all accounts I've seen, the press release is accurate but incomplete. Besides paying decently for part-time retail work, Airs provides vacation and sick pay and half the cost of employee transit passes. She insists, credibly, that she wants to figure out how to do more for her "incredibly great staff." Even UNITE HERE organizer Martie Voland told me that Airs, who's "not like all employers," is "a little bit of a leader in benefits for part-time work."

What peeves Airs the most -- making her more reluctant to recognize the union -- is the staff decision to unionize without coming to her first with specific requests. Both Voland and GO! worker Christine Beland acknowledge they know of no organized approach before calling in the union. Indeed, what they want is a more organized method. Some employee needs -- more full-time jobs, more hours for part-timers, health insurance -- get pushed aside while Boston's cost of living escalates. "We don't want to hurt Kim or the store," says Beland. "We admire and respect her. But we want our staff of sexuality educators to build careers here."

When I asked Beland what the union wants in a new contract, she said she's not yet sure. Significantly, she explained they want to be treated equally in a "cooperative and democratic decision making structure." Equality isn't one of capitalism's goals, of course; owners of hierarchical workplaces retain all rights not restricted by sadly narrow labor law. But it makes perfect sense to me for workers to have equal input into decisions that affect their lives.

A union can help workers build careers -- important in itself -- but equal power requires more fundamental change. Both sides have already made mistakes: GO! workers should have approached Airs directly; Airs should have accepted unionization without forcing a formal election. Still, it's not too late to make sure Grand Opening! remains fair to workers, useful to customers, and fun for everyone.

Comment on my initial reaction to this issue on my blog.

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