A labor clash is unfolding between H&M, a Swedish multinational retail clothing company, and the union representing its 1,500 employees in New York City’s Manhattan-based stores. It recently led to an unfair labor practice complaint being filed with the National Labor Relations Board alleging the company is refusing to negotiate in good faith.
“We began meeting with them in February 2018,” says Eileen Crosby, a union representative for Local 1102 Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. “We presented them with our proposal, they offered counter-proposals, and they haven’t changed or moved on any of their proposals. We accepted some of their proposals, but they haven’t agreed to or countered any of our proposals.”
The majority of the 16,000 employees at H&M throughout the United States are not under union representation. According to the company, “Employees in our stores in Manhattan, some of the outer Boroughs, Long Island and a distribution center in New Jersey have elected to have a labor union represent them.”
Shortly after the contract negotiations started to hit a standstill, Crosby says, for the first time in the eight years she’s serviced H&M stores in Manhattan, the company required her to sign in a visitor log to speak with employees.
The previous contract expired in March, with an extension into May, according to Local 1102 spokesperson Chelsea Connor. “This contract is specific to the Manhattan stores. These were the first union stores so it will set the tone for other contracts,” she says. In 2009, H&M ratified its first union contract ever with nine stores based in Manhattan.
The union is asking for workers to be granted the right to time off after working five consecutive days. It also wants part-time employees to be guaranteed 14 to 18 hours per week to maintain job sustainability, as these employees are required to maintain open availability on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays every week.
“With H&M rules, you must have open availability,” says Artavia Milliam, a full-time employee at H&M in Manhattan for ten years. “We can only request one day off a week and the rest has to be open. Right now, I live with my mother. I’ve been trying to move, but it’s very expensive in New York City. I need another job to live in New York City, but with mandatory availability its very hard to find another job.”
‘You have people available and they’re only getting four to eight hours per week, in some cases no hours.’
“You have people available and they’re only getting four to eight hours per week, in some cases no hours,” Crosby says. The union is also working to stop H&M from scheduling workers to close the store and open in the morning the very next day and to provide all employees, including part-time employees who consist of 70 to 80 percent of H&M’s workforce, with a dental and vision plan which would cost H&M less than $1 per month per employee to implement.
H&M media relations would not provide a specific percentage of how much of its workforce is considered part-time, but claimed the percentage and turnover for employees is in line with the industry average.
In response to a question about the contract negotiations, the company wrote: “H&M has long held a strong commitment to providing our employees a great place to work, with competitive wages and benefits. We are currently in negotiations with, UFCW Local 1102, the union that represents our employees at H&M stores in Manhattan. We look forward to securing a new agreement with the union soon that reflects our jointly shared values and fulfills our commitment to our workforce.”
On June 27, the union organized a demonstration outside its Herald Square flagship stores, and it is making weekly visits with workers and activists to H&M headquarters to demand the company starts to bargain in good faith.
“About a month ago, they sent out a letter claiming the union was not doing anything about the contract and made all employees sign in stating they’re fully aware of what’s going on,” Angelmar De Jesus, a part-time employee and four-year veteran of a Harlem H&M store tells me. “My hours fluctuate week to week. Sometimes I can’t even work my second job.”
‘My hours fluctuate week to week. Sometimes I can’t even work my second job.’
De Jesus explained he often gets called into work to cover other people’s shifts, but the lack of a sustainable schedule makes it difficult to get by in New York City. “I was very happy to be with the company and felt like I was going somewhere in my life,” he says. “But in the last year, I feel like my life at H&M is going a different route I didn’t intend.”
For several full-time employees at H&M, the new raise in the New York City minimum wage to $15 an hour at the end of this year doesn’t currently include additional increases for employees who have worked at the company for several years. The union is trying to include a longevity clause to wage increases in the new contract for employees who have worked at least three years.
“For someone like me who has been at the company, I’m getting paid the same amount of money as someone who has just come in,” says Milliam. She explains that as part-time employees suffer reduced hours, full-time employees like herself are working twice as hard to complete the work additional employees used to do. “They want me to do five separate jobs when I can go to another place and just do one thing for the same amount of money.”