Trés Cheap

UNITE tangles with anti-labor boutique

David Moberg

When H&M, the highly successful “cheap chic” Swedish clothing retailer, opened its first Chicago store on fashionable North Michigan Avenue, some things went as planned: Young, attractive clerks dressed in black cheered and danced to music as a long line of youthful customers walked in the door. But H&M hadn’t planned on another opening-day feature: a couple hundred protesters, many of them garment workers in red UNITE T-shirts, shouting “no justice, no peace” and carrying posters reading “Abuse is in style at H&M.”

UNITE organized the protest at the opening to bring public pressure to bear on H&M, as it and many other unions often do in their organizing campaigns. They intend to continue a variety of pressure tactics until the company agrees not to interfere with UNITE’s efforts to organize, says UNITE senior researcher and organizer Scott Zdrazil. H&M has yet to respond to the union’s actions.

H&M is a heavily unionized company throughout Europe with a corporate policy that states “all workers should be free to join associations of their choosing, and they should have the right to bargain collectively.” But when 200 employees in its New Jersey distribution center decided in August that they wanted a union, H&M responded like many U.S. corporations, workers and union organizers say: The almost entirely Spanish-speaking, immigrant workforce was forced to sit through anti-union meetings and videos, received letters outlining how to repudiate their signed union membership cards, and were subjected to closer surveillance.

After eight months on the job, Jose Santos, 21 and wearing a Phat Farm T-shirt, was promoted to full time at the New Jersey warehouse and supports the union effort. “The company can make us work as much overtime as they want, but there’s no fixed schedule,” he says. “Part-time people also sometimes work 40 hours, but they don’t have the right to medical insurance or any benefits.”

He remains “100 percent for the union” despite the company’s attempts to divide stronger union supporters from the less resolute. “The company actually has been trying to convince us we don’t need a union,” he says. “Now they’re smiling, but before it was, ‘Do this or we’ll show you the door.’ ”

Carmen Duran, a 36-year-old single mother who started with the company part time, sought to boost her hours in part so she would be eligible for health insurance. The Bronx, N.Y., woman is working full time now but still can’t afford coverage because it costs around $250 a month, roughly one-fourth of her income. She’s also upset at the lack of a fixed schedule, which makes it difficult for her to care for her two teenage children. “There’s a lot of abuse,” she says. “The schedule is ridiculous.” And with the organizing campaign, she now complains about being closely watched by supervisors.

Inside the Chicago store, H&M spokeswoman Karen Belva, in an elegant black pantsuit and heels, insisted that the company recognizes the rights of the protesters and for workers to organize. “They have every right to organize,” she says. “We don’t have an anti-union policy.” But the company’s attitude in these areas isn’t so clear. Last May, managers at PT Kahatex Sweater in Indonesia, which makes clothes for many European and American retailers including H&M, locked out 537 employees who refused to accept wages below the legal minimum, and two leaders were arrested. Many workers have yet to receive severance packages they were pressured to accept.

UNITE has begun signing up members at H&M’s seven retail stores in New York, where the union historically represented retail clothing and drug store workers but has not organized in many years. While enjoying a trendy work environment, H&M retail workers start at minimum wage, less than those who work in the distribution centers.

The effort to organize retail workers is new for UNITE, which has concentrated on commercial laundries and distribution centers related to its historic base of apparel and textile manufacturers. These manufacturers have been heavily hit by imports from low-wage companies, mainly as part of sourcing strategies by big retailers like H&M. “As the industry is controlled more by retailers, it is critical in order to represent workers in distribution and production to influence the primary retailer,” Zdrazil says.

The union also is appealing to Swedish unions to pressure H&M management to recognize UNITE. “What’s exciting is we are linking workers who sew clothes, ship clothes and sell clothes,” says organizer Mary Kay Devine. “We’re working on the street and going on a global scale. Companies are going global. So is UNITE.”

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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