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Salespeople at three Bob's Discount Furniture stores join union - 2011-09-28 13:47:19 on Astini News

Clint Engel -- Furniture Today, September 28, 2011

MANCHESTER, Conn. — Salespeople at three Bob's Discount Furniture stores in Connecticut have voted to unionize and elections in other Bob's stores in the Northeast could be coming.

In voting held Aug. 15 at Bob's stores in Manchester and Orange, Conn., employees voted 21-7 and 13-6, respectively, to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 919. Another vote at Bob's in Stamford, Conn., was held Sept. 23, with the union coming out on top 6-5, said Mark Espinosa, Local 919 president.

Espinosa said Bob's employees complained to the union that "commission formulas were being rearranged" and insurance costs were becoming unmanageable. Some said they would even be happy if the UFCW could get them a few hours of a minimum wage on slow Sundays, just to help cover their costs, he said.

"I think what happened was employees, including many who had been around for many years, (were concerned about) some changes in some policies and the way management was dealing with workers, especially since the company was sold," Espinosa said.

Ted English, CEO of the Manchester, Conn.-based retailer, could not be reached for comment.

The Top 100 company, founded in 1991 by Bob Kaufman and Gene Rosenberg, sold a majority stake in February 2005 to private equity firm Saunders, Karp & Megrue, which was later acquired by Apax Partners.

Despite the weak economy, Bob's has been expanding steadily, racking up sales gains for years. The company is No. 15 on Furniture/Today's Top 100 with estimated 2010 sales of $584.6 million in 2010 at 40 stores in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island. In May, it opened its first two Washington, D.C.-area stores.

Jerry Epperson, industry analyst and managing director of Richmond, Va.-based Mann, Armistead & Epperson said the move to unionized a commissioned sales force is unusual and he couldn't think of another example in the furniture industry.

"I've seen over and over again delivery drivers unionized or warehouse men unionized, but I can not remember ever seeing a case where the floor salespeople have been unionized," he said. "I don't know how you unionize commissioned employees."

Espinosa conceded that this is an unusual case for the UFCW, and that he's used to bargaining for specific dollar wages and benefits. In the Bob's case, the bargaining could be around the commission percentage as well as establishing some sort of base wage, he said.

"There are a lot of things we can do to maybe ease their (insurance) burden," he added.

Asked if any other Bob's stores in Connecticut were up for election, Espinosa said the union had tested the waters at other locations but doesn't see sufficient interest yet. He did say sister unions in other states, however, have sought elections, adding that believed UFCW local in Massachusetts had some Bob's elections coming up in mid-October.

The organizing director for Local 1445 in Massachusetts could not be reached for comment.

Espinosa said the organizing process for the three Connecticut stores is just beginning, and that the union has notified Bob's and its attorney and is waiting for dates to begin bargaining.

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