This article was first posted at Labor Notes.
The high turnover in retail makes organizing a huge challenge. But a thousand workers at eight Zara stores in Manhattan beat the odds and unionized.
It’s a first for Zara workers in the U.S. The Spanish-owned fashion outlet had agreed to recognize the union after a majority of workers signed cards, a milestone they reached in July. They’ll be members of Retail Workers (RWDSU) Local 1102.
Their win relied on international solidarity, in the form of an agreement between the retailer’s parent company and a global union.
But equally crucial was the help of a New York City worker center, the Retail Action Project (RAP), that specializes in building workers’ skills, including action on the job.
Retail organizing has drawn national attention with the Fight for 15 movement and Walmart worker strikes. But despite the slogan “$15 and a union,” the goal of widespread unionization seems far off.
Over the past decade RAP has seen workers get pushed even further to the margins. Mid-range stores like the GAP are struggling, while both luxury retailers and low-priced “fast fashion” ones — like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M — are expanding.
In this just-in-time industry, “as soon as you see it on the runway, in a matter of days you see it in the store,” said Stanley L. (he asked that his last name not be included), who works in a Manhattan Zara store. These companies compete on cheap production and quick turnaround of inventory.
“We’ve seen an even greater dip in wages,” said RAP Director Rachel Laforest, “and absolutely no training in any kind of customer service. Workers are told the clothes will sell themselves.”
Besides just-in-time scheduling and the growth of part-time hours, violations of wage-and-hour laws are common. Laforest estimates that 75 percent of people who attend RAP programs have experienced wage theft.
The issues are ripe for organizing. But is it possible in an industry with so much turnover? “People are in a job three months, six months,” Laforest said. “How do you organize when critical members of the committee are gone and then working somewhere else?”
RAP, a partnership between RWDSU and a community organization called the Good Old Lower East Side, was formed in 2005 to take on this challenge.
It works with the Center for Frontline Retail, a worker center with a training focus, to offer classes that help retail workers get higher-paying jobs, like training in product display and luxury selling.
RAP organizers also do outreach — talking to workers on their breaks, sometimes asking them to fill out surveys — at what Laforest describes as “retail hotspots”: the Soho and Herald Square corridors in Manhattan, and various malls in Queens and the Bronx.
It runs a 12-week leadership training program where workers map out the global retail industry and their role in it. They also learn to identify workplace issues, recruit others, and organize on the job.
“After 12 weeks, they really get a sense of the weight and power behind them if they step up and decide to take action,” said Laforest.
Protection in unity
To start making changes, one tool workers often use is to form a workplace committee — a group of even a few co-workers who agree to address problems together in a coordinated way.
They rely on their right to concerted activity under federal labor law — a right that’s legally protected whether you’re a union member or not. RAP often helps a committee put together a petition to present the issues to their boss in writing.
“If you do a petition delivery, you realize that if you know the law and are organized and coordinated with each other, you can get the manager and the employer to respond,” said Laforest. “There is a lot of protection in that unity.”
RAP organizers tell workers about the advantages of forming a union. If workers decide to go that route, the worker center puts them in touch with RWDSU.
But it’s key to have flexible strategies, Laforest said. “There is no cookie-cutter approach.”
Even when a committee has formed, there are many factors to consider when planning an action, she said. “How confident do they feel? How much do they want to reach out to others? How often do they want to step out?”
Because of the high turnover, RAP encourages members to join its committees that cross multiple retailers, like the art committee or the leadership committee. It also plugs members into policy campaigns, like the Just Hours campaign for fair scheduling.
“We have a long-term approach to organizing,” said Laforest. “We are developing leadership in the retail sector regardless of where people are.”
In 2014, Zara workers launched the #ChangeZara campaign with support from RAP.
They drew attention to the differences in work life between U.S. retail workers and their European counterparts who are unionized, such as access to benefits and representation at work.
After workers presented petitions to their managers and held public rallies, in 2014 Zara agreed to increase the number of full-time positions, end on-call shifts, and give workers a raise.
But Zara workers said they wanted more. “This isn’t enough. Management can easily take away these small improvements, because there is no union contract,” said Sharlene Santos in a YouTube video RAP produced. “Zara workers in New York must continue organizing until we get what we deserve.”
The framework agreement between global union UNI and Zara’s parent company, Inditex — the largest fashion retailer in the world — opened the door for workers to organize a union. It affirms Inditex’s commitment to freedom of association.
Using this framework, Inditex and RWDSU agreed on a “fair process” for New York City store workers to unionize. The company promised not to interfere in the union drive and to recognize the union once a majority signed cards.
“They were upfront,” Stanley said of the company. “They posted up a flyer when the (union) meeting was going to be.” He encouraged his co-workers to come to the meetings and to sign cards.
For a thousand Zara workers, a union is finally real. The next step is to begin negotiating their first contract.
Stanley is excited about joining the “union family.” In stints at other retailers, he’s already seen the difference a union makes.
He worked for several years at the nonunion Uniqlo, then went to a unionized H&M store. Dozens of New York H&M stores unionized with RWDSU between 2007 and 2011, relying on a neutrality agreement with the Swedish company.
“The communication was immediately much better,” Stanley said. “The respect was much more there.”
Janna Pea, deputy communications director for the union, hopes competitors take note of the message Zara is sending: “There is a way that you can operate a company, remain profitable, and recognize workers’ rights to respect on the job.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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