Retail Matters

Challenges & Opportunities for Retail Organizing

Fifteen years ago, two young women made history. Debora De Angelis and Wynne Hartviksen united with their retail co-workers to fight for better pay, basic rights and respect through union protection. Hartviksen led a drive to organize a chain of street-front retail stores in Toronto. The Suzy Shier store in the North York Sheridan Mall became the first women's clothing store in a mall to be unionized in Canada, thanks to the leadership of De Angelis.

Today, retail is the most common occupation in Canada for both women and men. Yet, only about 12 per cent of retail workers are union members and these are concentrated in warehouse and grocery work. Overall, retail work continues to mean low wages, few, if any, benefits and virtually no job security. Retail workers deserve better, today and tomorrow.

If workers learn from their history, and use this knowledge to organize, they can create better futures. Looking back at the history of retail organizing provides valuable lessons about unionizing this growing group of workers. I recently interviewed De Angelis and Hartviksen as part of my research on retail organizing. Many of the issues they confronted as they organized their workplaces in the 1990s persist, and some challenges have intensified. Organizing retail is no easy task, but there are possibilities.

While going to school in the early 1990s, Wynne Hartviksen worked for both the student newspaper and a chain of futon stores. Her pay was the minimum wage and benefits were minimal. Working conditions in the stores troubled the workers, most of whom were working part-time hours at various locations. The boss would arbitrarily fire people with little or no warning. In addition, being based in stores along downtown streets, the women had safety concerns, particularly when forced to work alone.

Hartviksen believes that her co-workers wanted respect and dignity, as much as, if not more than, higher wages.

Although her father was unionized, forming a union was not something Hartviksen immediately considered as a solution to her own workplace woes because she thought unions only represented workers in the manufacturing sector and other large workplaces. One evening when out for a beer, a co-worker suggested unionization as a joke. They discussed the possibility more seriously and decided to try, feeling they had nothing to lose. At the time, Ontario had card-check certification. Workers would indicate their desire to join a union by signing a card. If 60 per cent of employees signed a card and a hearing at the Labour Board was successful, the union was recognized. Every worker but one signed a card, and the futon chain workers quickly became members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

The workers negotiated their first contract, and the collective agreement was in effect for two years until the stores were closed during the height of the 1990s recession.

A few years later in the mid-1990s, Debora De Angelis began work at Suzy Shier, a women's clothing store, while in high school in Toronto. In addition to receiving low wages and no raises, workers were required to show up at work 15 minutes early for their shifts to apply make-up and prepare their appearance for the sales floor. A stack of resumes was kept by the phone, which the workers saw as a deliberate reminder that they were easily replaceable.

Managers made schedules and would allocate shifts based on their own personal preferences or prejudices, and on past sales performances. Some managers required sales associates to stand at least one metre away from each other so that they wouldn't talk too much.

Unionization was suggested by De Angelis' father, who worked for the Toronto Transit Commission and was a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union. De Angelis wasn't sure unions represented retail workers, or small workplaces dominated by young women, single mothers and workers of colour. After doing some research, she decided to pursue unionization and called the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

But the rules for organizing had changed. In 1995, the Conservatives were elected in Ontario. They changed provincial labour legislation to a mandatory vote model, an approach that continues today under the Liberal government for the vast majority of sectors. In Ontario, the mandatory vote model requires two steps. First, at least 40 per cent of the employees must sign union cards and the union must file for certification with the Ontario Labour Board. Then, one week later, there is a secret ballot vote, and 50 per cent plus one of the workers must vote in favour of unionization. The effects of this two-stage process, with a built-in delay, are significant, particularly for small workplaces like retail stores.

De Angelis spoke confidentially to workers in six stores across the Greater Toronto Area, explaining the unionization benefits and responding to the workers' concerns. Many were nervous and uncertain because they had no union experience, while others were keen to try and fight for dignity. When a manager from one of the locations found out about the drive, the union suggested only submitting the cards from the three stores with the strongest union support.

During the week before the vote, the company sent senior representatives in to try to dissuade the workers from supporting the union. The powerful corporate women would talk to each worker for at least an hour, often for longer. When the ballots were counted, only De Angelis' home store had voted for the union. During the five days of head office involvement, the key women workers in the other locations had spoken to De Angelis about their co-workers' fears of being identified as union supporters. Precisely because the company representatives had spent so much time talking to each worker, some workers had been convinced that things would improve without a union, while others were afraid that they would lose their jobs for having been open to unionization. They felt that in such small workplaces, they were too easily identifiable. The result
was that the other two stores voted as a block against the union.

The workers at the Sheridan Mall location negotiated their first collective agreement, which provided the workers with a raise, new rights and basic fairness for two years, until that Suzy Shier store was closed down. It has not been re-opened.

These are two of a small number of retail drives in Canada, but they raise important issues of enduring significance. The value of workplace relationships and dialogue among workers is clear, particularly in sectors where company loyalty against competing stores is emphasized by bosses promoting corporate "community," an approach intended to minimize worker solidarity and class consciousness.

To be taken seriously, unions must be seen as the best strategy for workers. Harviksen and De Angelis had fathers who were in unions, but the young women had not seriously considered unions as a possibility for their own workplaces. Both women saw unions as representing groups of workers who did not look like them or do what they did, and they knew little about the building blocks needed to form a union. This is a telling reminder that unionized workers need to speak to their families, friends and neighbours about labour politics and possibilities. It also emphasizes that education campaigns that inform youth about their rights and how to organize are important, and should be expanded.

The experiences of Hartviksen and De Angelis also show that while workers can complain, that anger needs to be channelled into organizing. Frustration is a start, but it isn't enough. Social media and other communication strategies can be used to shame bad bosses, but these should be tools, not ends unto themselves. Organizing workers is a lot of work and requires time, emotional
investment and energy, but it is essential.

If small workplaces like retail stores are going to have a chance of being unionized, the two cases suggest legislative change is very important. Card-check certification, something the Canadian labour movement has been actively calling for, makes a difference. Workers feel safe and their identities are not known to their employer. With mandatory-vote legislation, workers feel vulnerable. Companies exploit the one-week delay, using promises, intimidation, or both.

Certainly the transient nature of low-wage, insecure work like retail, combined with small, scattered workplaces, often located in the private property of malls, makes the logistical challenges of organizing retail workers formidable. Because a store closing creates unemployed workers and eliminates the wages of the workers who formed a union, it also contributes to a climate a fear, causing other workers to worry about losing their own jobs if they dare to ask for even modest improvements. The corporate practice of blaming unionized workers and their "high wages and benefits" for outsourcing, bankruptcies and/or store or plant closures, further divides unionized workers from non-union workers.

However, options exist. For example, although varying forms of labour legislation and jurisdiction complicate the scene, a union could opt to organize every store of a particular chain in a provincial, regional, national, or even continental area. Success with this approach could prevent the closure of individual, isolated unionized stores, thus removing one of the main impediments to union organizing. Hartviksen believes there are certain flagship stores aimed at particular consumer markets that companies, regardless of whether a union is present or not, will not close. These should be identified and targeted. If a team approach were undertaken, different unions could tackle neighbouring outlets within a mall that best fit their areas of expertise.

Unions could organize multiple stores or chains in a sector simultaneously, to pre-empt cries of unfair competition and the marginalization of unionized locations.

Alternative union models such as life-long or sector-based union membership could be used for workers shifting between many shorter-term jobs within a particular sector. Such an approach would require a shift in how union membership is conceptualized and organized for the service sector, but such a strategy may hold the most promise given the challenges of organizing transient workers and small workplaces.

Many retail workers are young, and Hartviksen believes retail is often seen as "girls' work," thus allegedly temporary and providing non-essential income. This belief reproduces the devaluation of retail workers and women's work. "Girls" deserve good work in their own right, certainly. But the retail workforce is more complex. As pension funds are threatened, we can assume that more seniors will need to take on additional waged work to subsist, with many ending up in retail. As more university and college graduates are unable to find work in the careers for which they studied, we can predict that more will need to stay in or take up retail work. As industrial and manufacturing jobs continue to disappear, workers from those sectors will also be forced to seek employment in retail sales.

More and more Canadians are responsible for selling the products, the brands and the culture of contemporary capitalism, while trying to live as unorganized low-wage workers. The cultural climate of competitive individualism divides workers more generally. The transient nature of retail work; the threat and pursuit of store closings; and, in particular, legislated mandatory vote certifications, make organizing retail workers difficult.

But retail matters and retail workers can be organized. For example, in the fall of 2009, 15 workers at the Lenscrafters eyeglass store in the Eaton Centre in Toronto joined UFCW Canada (the United Food and Commercial Workers), seeing unionization as the way to improve their
working conditions.

Specific struggles from the past and present can teach us a great deal, and suggest specific avenues to explore and pursue. However, as long as so much power is held by a small minority of corporate leaders, unions will have to confront the problem of store closings as well as plant shutdowns. This suggests a need for more effective and alternative forms of organizing, and greater economic power and control for workers in the wider arena.

Kendra Coulter teaches in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology and in the Labour Studies Program at the University of Windsor, in Ontario. She worked in retail for six years.