L.L. Bean is one of those companies that sells image as much as goods. "Wholesome" might be the focus-group buzzword for the Maine catalog retailer, with its outdoorsy concept and its online guide to the parks of the world. L.L. Bean's image is even a reason some workers apply there. But changes in management practices have touched off a union organizing drive. Says John Snow (not his real name), a seven-year employee in Bean's warehouse, "People's biggest single complaint is that they just don't tell the truth."

L.L. Bean employs workers at call centers, warehouses and manufacturing plants in several Maine towns. One four-year employee who also asked that his name not be used says, "I came to Maine wanting to work for L.L. Bean. I was attracted to them because I saw them as selling practical products that got people outdoors. I figured with all this glamorous hype, some of it must be true. I was one of these morons who only saw the catalog."

Maxine Mullen, who works in the returns department, says that "L.L. Bean's always had the reputation that it was a very hard place to get into" (workers must hire on as seasonals during the fall rush before being considered for regular jobs), "but once you got in, you could plan your future. The reality is that every year since I've been here they've taken away more and more and given less and less."

Fortune magazine ranked L.L. Bean 36th on its list of 100 best companies to work for in 1998, 100th in 1999--and not on the list at all in 2000. Many union supporters date the beginning of their troubles to the departure of a slew of vice presidents and their replacement by outsiders.

Snow tells this story about the "different breed of manager": A manager was doing budgets, calculator in hand, with a supervisor, and punched in a number. The manager said he needed the supervisor to cut his budget by that amount. The supervisor protested, "I've already cut three times. Did you ever consider the people?" The manager held up the calculator and said, "Do you see any people in here?"

After paying annual bonuses, sometimes as high as 16 percent, for many years, the company paid no bonuses in 1997, and haven't since. "They had a plan to not pay bonuses for five years and invest in retail store expansion," Snow says. "They didn't tell the employees, but the higher- ups knew that."

Dick Roy, a returns worker, says employees are tired of low and inconsistent pay. Wages turn on annual individual appraisals, resulting in different pay for the same work. Roy says the average wage in the warehouse is about $20,000 a year. Workers charge the company plays with budget figures to justify the lack of bonuses.

A new wage scale announced last winter gave no increase to the lowest-paid employees, but 5 to 6 percent raises higher up the ladder. Some workers can't even be sure of a full week's pay. At the call centers, where a majority of the workers are women, Snow says, "if the phones are not ringing, they send them home."

The first organizing meeting called by Teamsters Local 340 in late March attracted 250 L.L. Bean workers. Says local President Bob Piccone, a veteran of several abortive attempts to unionize the 4,000 L.L. Bean employees, "It surprised us, to be truthful." The union had brought only 50 brochures.

L.L. Bean responded quickly to the union's presence, hiring the well-known anti-union law firm of Seaforth and Shaw. So far company strategy has included both mandatory small group meetings to discuss the union and various "carrots"--an extra day off, a free breakfast, raises for team leaders. Some long-term seasonals were made regular employees. A revamping of pay grades, in the works for years, finally materialized, resulting in raises for some. "People say, 'We know we got the raise because of the union threat, but it's not too bad,' " Snow reports.

Workers say the campaign is moving slowly now, after a flurry of newsletters and the initial big turnout. In October, though, management announced that workers will have to pay higher insurance premiums, a move sure to stir dissent. Roy says that employee insurance payments have risen 53 percent in the past five years, while pay has risen only 15 percent.

At the same time, the company increased a few benefits: They will now cover "domestic associates"--unmarried gay or straight couples--a move sure to land L.L. Bean on some "good employer" lists. "And we'll now get a free annual colorectal screening," Mullen adds. "I thought that was great, because I felt like I'd just gotten one."

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