United For Respect Aims To Organize Retail Workers

Fast-fashion stores often get criticized by environmentalists, but in the past two months H&M and Forever 21 have been the targets of protests from labor groups. Last month, H&M employees held a demonstration outside of a store in Pasadena, Calif.

These workers were protesting the firing of Nick Gallant, a former H&M employee based in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Emeryville, Calif. Gallant had petitioned H&M management to improve what he considered to be unfair and unsafe working conditions. Gallant complained that he had been unfairly retaliated against.

Helping organize the H&M protest was the nonprofit group United for Respect. The group has recently expanded its attention to Forever 21. Melissa Uribe, a United for Respect representative, said that Forever 21 workers had contacted her group for help after the fast-fashion giant had declared bankruptcy on Sept. 30.

“Companies need to be held accountable for bad business practices,” Uribe said. “When they close their stores, company executives get to walk away with millions of dollars while people who helped the company profit often get forgotten. This is about working people recognizing that they need to do something about this and they have the power to do so.”

Uribe also said that retail workers are being left behind in an economy that many economists contend is strong.

“You hear about an economy doing so well and people profiting, but retail workers don’t feel that,” she said. “Many are still getting minimal wages, and many are getting their hours cut constantly. They’re being treated as people who don’t have lives, children and doctors appointments. Workers are getting fed up and know it’s in their power to make sure our economy works for all, not just the wealthy few.”

It remains to be seen whether there’s a surge in a campaign for organizing retail workers, but the recent developments take place in a legislative landscape where labor groups and their allies have been advocating for fair workweek laws.

Fair workweek rules have become ordinances in Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. The Los Angeles City Council voted in March to support a fair workweek law. It was introduced by Council President Herb Wesson and Council members Curren Price and Paul Koretz, said a representative from Koretz’s office. It is currently being reviewed by the council’s Economic Development Committee.

Fair workweek rules would require retailers to tell workers at least two weeks in advance what days and hours they are scheduled to work. It also bars retailers from demanding workers open a store early and close late without a minimum 10-hour break.

United for Respect has voiced support for fair workweek rules as have its Los Angeles–headquartered allies such as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, said Nelson Motto, LAANE director of organizing.

“Flexibility is not there for them,” Motto said of scheduling for retail workers. “A worker might request a day off because they have to go to a graduation or go to a funeral and they are declined. If they refuse a shift, their hours are dropped.”

In 2018, LAANE collaborated on a survey of 140,000 retail workers with the UCLA Labor Center. It found that eight in 10 retail workers lacked a stable work schedule despite the majority of workers surveyed wanting stable, 40-hour workweeks.

The study also found that an unreliable schedule creates an unstable income. The study said that half of retail workers are late in paying bills. Also, half of those retail workers who support children have difficulty finding and financing childcare.

Campaigning for fair workweek laws comes at the same time as a successful campaign to boost the minimum wage in Los Angeles and other American cities. In May, the City of Los Angeles approved an increase in minimum wage to $15. The wage hike will take place in 2020.

But instituting union-style rules for fashion retail is problematic, said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association, a Los Angeles–headquartered industry group. Some retail salespeople work on commission, for example. City-mandated rules wouldn’t specifically work for those workers, she said.

“You can’t change the cost of merchandise because wages are up,” Metchek said. “The only way to affect change without affecting profit is to change the way stores operate. Maybe stores will operate for fewer hours. Maybe they’ll have fewer employees.”

While there is a long history in union organizing among grocery retail workers and fashion sewers, the history is not as deep with fashion retail. There has been an uptick in interest in organizing for fashion retail workers because it is no longer considered a job for teenagers or people looking to pick up a few extra dollars, said Marissa Nuncio, a director for the downtown Los Angeles–headquartered Garment Worker Center.

“The economy is such that people are taking jobs not traditionally seen as permanent or long-term work,” Nuncio said. “They have families, and they need fair scheduling to help with family issues such as childcare.”

United for Respect has been at the forefront of organizing retail workers. It was originally part of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union when the UFCW was organizing Walmart workers. The nonprofit was originally called Our Walmart. The name was changed to United for Respect after a split from the UFCW more than nine years ago, Uribe said.

Since then, it has developed campaigns to organize workers at retailers such as Sears and Toys R Us. It has also worked on a Wall Street accountability campaign. It contends that Wall Street firms acquire retailers, burden them with debt, which leads the once-profitable retailers into bankruptcy that in turn leaves hundreds of retail workers without jobs.

The group has supported Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bill Stop Wall Street Looting Act. It would make private-equity firms responsible for debts and pension obligations of the companies they buy.