On November 9, as I write this, I was supposed to have been at the Borders bookstore in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, speaking and signing copies of my book Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American. It was to have been the final stop of my forty-seven-city tour. But on October 30 I was told that the book-signing had been canceled. The Fort Lauderdale Borders had received a memo from its corporate headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, banning me from speaking or signing at any Borders store in the country.
When I was growing up in Michigan, the original Borders was a store that actively championed free expression. In fact, when I was publishing the Michigan Voice, Borders would carry my paper when other establishments would not. Now, Borders is a huge nationwide chain, and its "liberal" views have earned it the reputation as the "Ben & Jerry's of the book chains."
So why was I banned from Borders? My book was doing well. It has been on the New York Times best-seller list for a month and was the number two best-selling Random House book for the entire Borders chain. I've been banned, I found out, because I made the mistake of uttering a five-letter word, the dirtiest word in all of corporate America -- "union."
Back in September, on the second day of my tour, when I arrived at the Borders store in downtown Philadelphia, I found nearly 100 people picketing the place because Borders had fired a woman named Miriam Fried. She had led a drive to organize workers at the store into a union. The effort failed, and, a few weeks later, Miriam was given the boot.
When I found this out I told the Borders people that I have never crossed a picket line and would not cross this one. I asked the demonstrators if they wanted to take the protest inside. They thought it was a good idea. I had no desire to cause a ruckus, so I asked Borders management if it was O.K. to allow the protesters in. They said yes. So we all came into the store, I gave my talk, I gave Miriam the microphone so she could talk, everyone behaved themselves and it was a good day all around -- including for Borders, which ended up selling a lot of books, breaking the record for a noontime author at that location. (The record had been held by George Foreman, and I now like to tell people only Ali and I have beaten Foreman.) I also announced that I would donate all my royalties for the day to help Miriam out.
Although Anne Kubek, Borders' corporate V.P. in charge of labor relations, had approved my bringing the protesters inside, upper management decided that she had made a mistake -- and they were going to take it out on me. On the following Tuesday I was scheduled to speak at the new Borders store in New York's World Trade Center. When I arrived, I was met by two Borders executives. They had flown in from Michigan just to stop me from speaking. The executives, flanked by two security guards, explained that I could come into the store and sign books, but I would not be allowed to talk to the people who had come to hear me. They said that the "commotion" I had caused in Philly raised "security concerns." I couldn't believe I was being censored in a bookstore.
The Borders manager told the assembled crowd that I would not be speaking because "Port Authority police and fire marshals have banned all daytime gatherings at Borders." When I heard this, I stepped forward and told the people this was a lie, that I was forbidden to speak because of my support for the workers in Philly. Under protest, I signed the books of those who stayed -- beneath a big banner celebrating "Banned Books Week."
On October 13, I spoke to a large crowd in a Des Moines auditorium. After the speech I went out front and started signing books. "What store are these from?" I innocently asked. "Oh, these are from the local Borders," I was told. Well, I thought, they don't mind if I make them some money -- as long as it's not on their premises! Then someone slipped me an anonymous note. It read: "We are employees of the Des Moines Borders. We were told that we could not work the book table tonight, that only management was working the table, because they said they wanted to 'protect us' from you."
An hour later, I went out to the parking lot and saw some people standing there in the dark -- the employees from the Des Moines Borders! They said they were hiding out there because they had spotted Borders' regional director with another man inside. "He flew in to spy on you, or us, or both," they told me. "He saw us so we may not have jobs on Monday." (Bookstore employees afraid they might be fired for attending a public speech at the Herbert Hoover High School auditorium!) The executive had not introduced himself to me -- or his colleague, who employees believe is a unionbusting "consultant" hired by Borders.
I wished the workers well, and the next night they held their first union meeting. The previous week, the Borders store in the Lincoln Park section of Chicago had become the first Borders in the country to vote in a union (United Food and Commercial Workers). Recently, workers in Des Moines signed enough cards to hold a union election. It is a victory that should inspire not only Borders workers but underpaid employees everywhere. That's why I am not in Fort Lauderdale as I write this. Borders is "protecting" its workers from me.
Well, they're really going to need protection now. First, I am donating my royalties from the next 1,000 sales of Downsize This! to the organizing drive at Borders. Second, I am asking each of you to support the Borders workers in your city. Bring up the union when you're in the store and thank that kid with the nose ring and green hair for helping to revive the labor movement in America.
Note to Borders Executives: If, after this column is published, you retaliate by removing my book from your shelves, or hiding it in the "humor" section or underreporting its sales to the New York Times list, I will come at you with everything I've got. You sandbagged me in Philly, and the only decent way for you to resolve this is to give Miriam Fried her job back and let the workers form their union without intimidation or harassment.
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