Tuesday, February 07, 2006

In Modern Rarity, Workers Form Union at Small Chain


Among the thousands of stores in New York's low-income neighborhoods, labor unions have virtually no presence, except in a few supermarkets. But in a remarkable culmination to a yearlong struggle, 95 workers at a chain of 10 sneaker stores have formed a union.

For much of last year, workers with the sneaker chain, Footco, protested what they said were widespread minimum-wage violations. Last month, however, they signed a union contract that raised their wages and gave them paid vacations and health insurance.

Footco's employees — almost all of them are immigrants — used some unusual pressure tactics to form a union. They worked with a community group that threatened to boycott Footco's stores, and they filed a complaint with Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, claiming minimum-wage and overtime violations.

"They really didn't want to increase our wages," said Melissa Brooker, a sales clerk at a Footco store in Bushwick, Brooklyn. "They knew they were backed into a corner."

The union that Footco's workers joined, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said its success in combining community support with boycott threats could be copied to unionize other small apparel and shoe chains across New York.

"I don't know when was the last time that a small chain like this was organized," said Jeffrey Eichler, the union's coordinator of retail organizing. "We're going to try to use this model elsewhere in the city."

Talking about Footco's decision to recognize the union and sign a contract, Young B. Cho, the company's owner, said: "We're happy to do it. It's the right thing to do. Everybody is happier. The workers are happier."

Ms. Brooker, 23, a native of St. Vincent's in the Caribbean, said that last summer her Footco store, called New York Sneakers, paid her $4.75 an hour and never paid time-and-a-half for overtime, even when she worked 60-hour weeks. For those weeks, she earned just $270, she said.

Footco's workers turned to Make the Road by Walking, a community group in Bushwick that helps immigrant workers. That group and the retail workers' union began gathering information about wage violations at Footco's stores in Bushwick, Brownsville, Jamaica, Washington Heights and other neighborhoods.

"We saw that conditions at Footco were really bad," said Andrew Friedman, co-director of Make the Road by Walking. "We surveyed the workers, and they said their priorities were higher wages and health insurance, and we knew we couldn't get those in many stores simultaneously without helping the workers to unionize."

Make the Road has strong community support — 1,500 people have paid $100 each to become members — and to help Footco's workers, it threatened a boycott unless the company signed its "Good Business Community Agreement."

Upset about widespread minimum wage and overtime violations among retailers throughout Bushwick, Make the Road got more than 1,000 Bushwick residents to sign statements pledging to boycott stores that treated their employees improperly.

The day the Footco boycott was to begin last August, the company signed the community agreement, which called for not fighting unionization efforts and for recognizing a union if a majority of workers voiced support for one.

Within two weeks, Manuel Guerrero, an organizer for the retail workers' union, got 90 percent of Footco's workers to sign statements saying they wanted to unionize.

"It went very fast," he said. "They were very enthusiastic."

Footco recognized the union in October, pressured by the complaint filed with the attorney general. Negotiators for the workers told Footco's owner that if he signed a union contract and improved wages, Mr. Spitzer might demand less back pay for wage violations.

Patricia Smith, director of the attorney general's labor bureau, said her office was negotiating a back-pay settlement with Footco.

"We told Footco what we tell everyone — if they have increased labor costs, we'll take that into consideration," she said.

On Jan. 18, after three months of negotiations, the two sides signed a contract. The three-year accord sets wages at $7.25 an hour, rising to $7.50 on July 1. To increase earnings, it guarantees most workers 45 hours of work each week, meaning five hours of overtime.

The contract gives workers three paid sick days a year (they had not been getting paid if they stayed home sick).

The contract also gives two paid bereavement days and one week of paid vacation, rising to two weeks after five years on the job. Previously, Footco's employees had no paid vacation.

Workers employed more than 20 hours a week will have health coverage, with the company contributing $2,200 a year per worker.

"We didn't have nothing," said Jose Enriques, 32, an immigrant from Mexico who has worked at Footco for five years. "But now what we got, it's good. Now I will make the same money working 45 hours a week that I used to make working 55, 60 hours."

The contract, union officials say, will increase Footco's labor costs by a total of $2 million over three years.

"My read on the company was they didn't want to have a big fight," Mr. Friedman said. "I think they genuinely wanted to do the right thing. They realized they had been doing the wrong thing. But they were nervous about the cost."

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