Retail Workers Make History

People often see retail work as destined to be temporary, low paid, erratic, and without benefits. Some think that retail workers should simply accept whatever demands are made on them by managers and corporate chains, and not expect to have many rights or protections. But several young women and men are determined to change these perceptions, and the realities of retail work.

On October 6, 2011, workers at the trendy fashion chain H&M in Mississauga's Square One mall, in Toronto, voted to join UFCW Canada (the United Food and Commercial Workers). In doing so they made history by becoming the first H&M in Canada to organize. They also sent out a strong message about the need to improve retail work and retail workers' lives.

The H&M workers at Square One are a diverse group. Most work part time and most are young women, but they are from many different ethnic groups and communities. Some are new to the job of "sales advisor" at H&M, while others have worked there for years. Most agreed that things at work could be better. Some longtime workers had planned to look for another job in retail, seeing a downhill slide in how they were being treated. Others were frustrated but unsure what could be done, so they quietly accepted the idea that, because they worked in retail, they were going to feel dissatisfied.

However, things began to change when union organizer Amy Tran asked if they would like to learn more about what unionizing could mean for them. Sabrina Butt, a full-time worker, was cautiously optimistic. She had long believed in fairness and in people standing together, and felt that she and her co-workers deserved more respect and equity. "I thought that a union could work. A union could be the way to get us a strong collective voice," she says.

Other workers agreed, and the organizing began. Small conversations were held over lunch, larger meetings were organized with the union's help, and fierce debates were held on social media. Workers did their own research, asked each other and the union organizers questions, and talked through their hopes and worries. Like the workers themselves, the issues were diverse. Their workplace concerns ranged from fairness in wages and promotion, to overtime pay, to a desire for more respect from managers. Workers wanted to have a real say in their own workplace and saw unionization as a way to improve the retail sector more broadly.

The chance to work collectively and constructively, with the strength of a union in their corner, opened up a world of possibilities for the young workers. "We deserve this," declared Lina Namrud with great passion during a gathering of co-workers. "People fought hard so we could have the right to unions and what unionization can bring, so we need to keep fighting."

The victory was thrilling for the young workers committed to making change. At press time, they were looking forward to negotiating their first contract.

This historic victory offers important insights about the present, future, and importance, of retail organizing. Here are some key lessons:

Many workers wanted improvements, but it wasn't until unionizing was explicitly suggested that the workers considered the option, let alone pursued it. And once the seed of organizing was planted, union supporters needed to work hard. They strategized, they learned more, they kept notes; they had many, many conversations. They learned a lot about themselves and about social change. They say they are now feeling stronger and more powerful as a group, and as individuals.

The work of organizing involved thinking and talking about contracts and the tangible building blocks of creating better rules and standards at work. But it was also about people, relationships, and emotions. Many friendships are formed in retail workplaces. Drawing on these relationships was integral to building supportive community and allowing for thorough discussions of workers' ideas and concerns. There were also divisions and disagreements. The support that pro-union workers provided for each other was essential. "We would vent and we would hug," says Nabeela Irfan. "I was so grateful for the support of my co-workers as we worked for this together."

A key motivator for the Square One sales advisors was the knowledge that H&M workers in Sweden, Germany, and the United States were union members. They could look at the specific gains Manhattan H&M workers had already won through collective bargaining, and see that change was possible. "If they can have these things, why can't we?" says Jerome Arguelles, a part-time worker. Similarly, not long after the Square One certification, H&M workers in Joliette, Quebec voted for unionization, inspired by their Mississauga co-workers' path-making victory. It is clear that the more retail workers learn about the realities and possibilities of unionizing, the more they will consider it as a meaningful way to improve their working conditions and lives. "I want to make retail jobs good jobs," says Amit Sangha. These workers have shown that such a future is possible.

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.