A year ago, retail employees at the Macy's department store in South Coast Plaza decided to contact organized labor in the hopes of conducting an on-site election that might bring with it a new union contract. At first, the plan to unionize seemed promising; with just a few months before the scheduled election, a majority of workers still seemed in favor of being represented by two separate union locals belonging to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).
By Jan. 9, however, when all the votes had been tallied, it was clear that the union vote had been a miserable failure. Of roughly 800 employees who voted in the election, only 149 voted in favor of joining a union-less than 25 percent of the total. Labor's loss was quickly touted by local newspapers as evidence of the unions' lack of popularity among the Macy's workforce. "The people spoke," one jubilant Macy's worker told the LA Times. "The numbers were just so lopsided that it was overwhelming."
But according to other Macy's workers who spoke with the Weekly, "overwhelming" might better describe an aspect of labor's defeat that went completely unreported in the local media: a vigorous anti-union campaign that was waged by Macy's West, the division of the Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores Inc. that owns all California Macy's stores.
"It was major, Nazi-style tactics," claimed one Macy's cosmetics sales associate who asked to not be identified. "The store was saturated with managers on the day of the election." She and another worker who agreed to be interviewed said that, in the weeks leading up to the election vote, Macy's held a series of "captive audience" meetings with the employees; the meetings were geared toward ferreting out pro-union workers and targeting them for one-on-one meetings with management.
Workers were also allegedly subjected to unprecedented job supervision in the weeks leading up to the election, according to Macy's employees. "They used a lot of scare tactics," said cosmetics sales associate Lola Di Giovani. "They told us we were lucky to be working. They made promises to people who said they'd vote [against the union] that they'd get better positions. These were people who were supporting the union until they were offered certain things."
Such tactics apparently helped erode what early on appeared to be a relatively pro-union atmosphere, helped by working conditions that make union organizing in the retail industry especially difficult. Perhaps the chief obstacle is the retail industry's high employee turnover ratio, which is caused by endemic low wages (around $6 to $8 per hour for most starting employees) and a lack of job advancement. Although Macy's workers in New York and San Francisco have enjoyed union representation for decades, no major department store in Southern California has seen an attempt to form a union in more than 10 years.
Yet last year, employees at the South Coast Plaza Macy's decided to contact the Teamsters union, asking for its help in organizing a union. The Teamsters then notified UFCW about the potential to mount a joint election campaign, which would be sponsored by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). At first, only 500 workers were scheduled to be included in the proposed union vote-about 300 of whom had informally indicated their desire to join a union.
That changed after an NLRB hearing in October, at which time Macy's West successfully petitioned for company employees at the Crystal Court location to be included in the proposed bargaining unit. According to Rick Eiden, organizing director for UFCW's Local 324, that motion was followed by a similar one the next month, at which time the NLRB agreed to permit more than 100 "on-call workers"-workers who only appear on site when called by store management-to participate in the election.
At both hearings to argue Macy's case, said Eiden, was David Bradshaw, a high-priced attorney from Macy's longtime partner in labor arbitration, the law firm of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler and Krupman. Increasing the number of workers to be included in an upcoming election is a typical union-busting tactic, often forcing the union to organize support among more employees than it has resources to reach. Other tactics used by Macy's were less subtle. U.S. labor law states that before an NLRB-sponsored election can take place, the company must provide the union with a so-called "Excelsior" list of all employees who will vote. Macy's did this on the last day allowable under the law-just 45 days before the election.
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As the UFCW and Teamsters struggled to organize about 300 just-added workers, the department store apparently confused the situation by increasing its sales staff and bringing in several new employees. "The caliber of the people [who were] brought in really dropped," said one Macy's employee. "They were hiring kids so they could influence them to help the company by voting against the union." Macy's also allegedly brought in managers from several other Southern California stores to help supervise the anti-union campaign, including the company's captive-audience meetings. "If they saw two employees talking to each other, they would walk up and ask what they were talking about," said the employee. "They had a list of people to talk to each day. They had names highlighted, and they were trying to determine whether you were a 'yes' or a 'no' vote."
"The bottom line is that we shared information with the employees that they needed to have before they voted," said Joseph Vella, vice president of employee relations for Federated Department Stores. "We urged everyone to vote and said we'd respect their decision. They made that decision 4-1."
Vella acknowledged that Bradshaw has handled labor matters for Macy's West for more than 20 years, but he denied that the company's pre-election campaign was responsible for intimidating workers into voting against the union. "The vote speaks for itself," Vella said. "You don't see that kind of margin pretty often. It's pretty resounding."
"The results [of the election] were not favorable, but we still look at it as a victory for the workers," said Eiden. "This was an 11-month campaign by the workers at Macy's to achieve a union election. It cleared a lot of hurdles." That said, Eiden believes the UFCW's defeat won't end worker frustration at Macy's or in the retail industry as a whole. "There is still a high level of dissatisfaction in the retail industry," he said. "I think you're going to see an increasing number of workers demanding representation."