NEW YORK — Brylane Inc. wants UNITE to put its members where its mouth is.

In an unusual move, the catalog retailer has petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold a secret-ballot election to determine whether a majority of the approximately 1,000 workers at its Indianapolis distribution center want to be represented by the apparel union.

Brylane’s petition appeared to be intended to cut off months of procedural squabbling between the company and the union. UNITE officials contend that a quicker way to determine whether a majority of workers supported the union was to do a check of the number of employees who have signed union cards.

"Several of our employees have told us they did not fully understand the implications of what they were signing when the card was presented to them by the union organizers last year, and many have asked that these cards be returned to them," Brylane chief executive officer Russell Stravitz said in a statement about the petition.

"Some employees have told us that the cards were intended only to get an election," he added. "We have a strong commitment to our employees and their right to make the choice of union representation. We believe that a secret ballot election that is conducted by the National Labor Relations Board is the surest way to protect and respect these employee rights."

For several months, Brylane officials have repeated that they would accept the result of an NLRB election, something they are bound to do by law.

UNITE president Bruce Raynor said Friday: "For 10 months, Brylane has poisoned the atmosphere, threatened the workers and violated workers’ rights. Despite all that, the majority signed union cards. The company has, all of a sudden, now that they feel they have intimidated people for long enough, they...come in with this tactic."

Karl Paveloko, supervisory field examiner at the NLRB’s Indianapolis office, said it was "relatively" unusual for an employer to file a petition for an election. Brylane’s petition was the 597th filed by an employer since the office opened in the mid-Sixties, he said. Over that time, the office has received over 10,000 petitions from unions and other parties.Stravitz added, "We have taken this unusual step because we believe it is critically important that our employees be assured of their legal right to vote on this matter."

During their 10-month campaign to organize the facility, UNITE officials have contended that waiting for an election would give Brylane management a chance to aggressively lobby against the union. UNITE officials said that a majority of employees had signed union cards, but declined to provide specific numbers, citing concerns that management would target enough pro-union employees to ensure a majority antiunion vote.

Another NLRB representative in Indianapolis said the board typically tries to schedule a vote within 42 days of the filing of a petition. However, he added, disputes on the time and location of the election can lead either unions or management to demand hearings, which can slow the process.

"This is probably going to go to hearings," he suggested.

Asked if he thought pro-union workers would carry an election, Raynor responded, "I don’t think it’s an issue. I don’t think there will be any election."

UNITE’s campaign to unionize the facility heated up this spring, with union demonstrations targeting many fashion brands owned by French conglomerate Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, Brylane’s parent company. PPR also holds a majority stake in Gucci and, through it, a 50 percent in Stella McCartney’s company as well as a 51 percent stake in Alexander McQueen’s firm. Union demonstrators showed up on the doorstep of McQueen’s new downtown Manhattan store on the day of its opening last week.

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