Workers File Lawsuit Against American Apparel as Unionization Efforts Heat Up

Three workers fired from American Apparel have filed a federal class-action lawsuit maintaining they were not given enough legal notice or severance pay before they were dismissed.

Carlos Hirschberg, Cesar Antonio Palma Cordero and Dominga Valencia, among some 200 American Apparel workers dismissed in early April, maintain that American Apparel violated the federal and state Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), which stipulates that employers give their workers 60 days legal notice before there are mass layoffs.

“These claims are absolutely without merit,” an American Apparel spokesperson said. “Workers’ rights and respect for our employees are core principles of American Apparel. This is clear from our code of business conduct and ethics, which reflects our efforts to ensure that American Apparel's workplaces are free from harassment, bullying, and intimidation, and which promotes fair treatment of employees and compliance with labor and employment laws. We are dedicated to a culture of free speech and social commentary.”

In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on April 16, the former workers maintain that management duped a number of employees into signing separation agreements releasing any and all claims against the company, including claims for severance pay.

“American Apparel presented these separation agreements to employees under duress and under procedurally unconscionable terms. As American Apparel’s management was well aware, many of these employees did not read or write at all,” said the lawsuit filed by attorney Keith Fink. “None of these employees were attorneys, nor were they given the opportunity to consult counsel’s assistance with these agreements.”

The dismissed workers are asking for compensatory damages equal to at least the amounts provided by the federal and state WARN Act as well as attorney fees.

Meanwhile, hundreds of American Apparel workers have signed cards stating they wish to form a union, said Nativo Lopez, a senior adviser with Hermandad Mexicana, a non-profit immigrant rights group that has been working with terminated workers to see if retaliation charges should be filed with the National Labor Relations Board against American Apparel.

“There are quite a few who have signed cards,” Lopez said, who would not give a specific amount but said more than 1,000 people have signed up. There are 2,800 production workers at the huge clothing factory in downtown Los Angeles. “The workers themselves are self organizing and collecting the cards for the most part.”

Lopez said he has been at the American Apparel facility every day talking to workers. The union organizing has grown tense with American Apparel recently accusing Lopez of using a women’s bathroom at the company’s facility. American Apparel’s General Counsel Chelsea Grayson wrote a letter dated April 15 stating that Lopez was found in a women’s restroom at the American Apparel and that “the incident is all the more disturbing in that there was a woman trying to use the restroom at the time.”

The letter instructed Lopez not to enter American Apparel premises—including any private property surrounding the company’s buildings.

Lopez, who said he has not received the letter, explained he was at the American Apparel factory store when he went to use the men’s restroom. However, a female janitor told him the floor of the men’s bathroom was wet and that he should use the women’s restroom right next door. “She said she would be right there,” Lopez said. “I used the women’s restroom, washed my hands and stepped out, and someone called security and asked me to leave. They want to make an issue out of this instead of making an issue about violating federal and state law and giving out paltry severances and having workers signing waivers waiving their rights.”

All this turmoil comes as four workers did file grievances on April 15 with the National Labor Relations Board. American Apparel employees Savino Rubio, Savino Refugio, Marina Cuellar and Richard Krehl said basically the company violated the National Labor Relations Act by interfering with workers’ rights to talk with union organizers. A fifth employee, Carlos Cuevas, filed a complaint with the NLRB on April 16.

Unionization efforts, worker layoffs and the lawsuit all come after American Apparel founder Dov Charney was fired in December from his job as president and chief executive. He was replaced with veteran apparel executive Paula Schneider.