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NEW YORK — After a 15-month organizing campaign by UNITE, the more than 700 workers at Brylane Inc.’s fulfillment center in Indianapolis on Wednesday won the right to be represented by the apparel union and bargain collectively with their employer.
“I think a lot will change,” said Karen Rico, who has worked at the warehouse for the past five years. “We’ll finally have respect, we’ll finally have a say in what goes on.”
Rico, who supported the union, said a key goal of the union would be to improve health and safety practices at the warehouse. UNITE said that Brylane’s records show one of 10 employees at the facility has suffered a repetitive-motion injury. Rico said that she had surgery on her shoulder in July to correct an injury she suffered as result of her work at the distribution center.
“Something’s wrong if I’m here only five years and I need surgery,” she said.
June Herman, a 19-year veteran of the plant who said she has had developed carpal-tunnel syndrome in both hands as a result of her work, also reacted warmly to the news.
“It will make a better workplace altogether,” she said.
The results of the card check were revealed Wednesday afternoon outside the office of an attorney who was hired to conduct the check.
According to UNITE field director Mary Kay Devine, 383 of the 738 eligible employees, or 51.9 percent, signed union cards stating that they wanted to be represented by UNITE. While that majority was sufficient to make the union the workers’ representative, she noted that another 127 cards had been filled out incorrectly by Brylane workers, which she said would have made for a wider margin of victory.
Devine said the union’s initial goals would be to reinstate a pension program at the company, press for regular pay raises and improve working conditions.
“We’re looking forward to negotiating the first contract,” she said. “Brylane deserves credit and should be congratulated that they did decide to take this route.”
Brylane officials did not respond to calls Wednesday.
A key area of contention throughout the campaign was exactly how the union could be certified. Since early last year, UNITE officials were pushing for a card-check procedure, in which employees who want to join the union sign union cards which can be collected and counted over a period of weeks. Brylane officials had been pushing to have an on-site secret-ballot election.
Both procedures are considered valid by the National Labor Relations Board. Brylane agreed to recognize the card check early this month.
UNITE president Bruce Raynor said Brylane’s acceptance of the card-check “should be seen as a positive example for other employees.”
The campaign took a particularly unusual turn last August. At that point, Brylane petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold a secret-ballot election to determine whether a majority of employees supported unionization.
It is a rare thing for an employer to call for a union vote, and UNITE opposed the move. From early in the campaign, UNITE had sought to use the card-check method to determine whether it had a majority in its camp. UNITE’s argument was that waiting for a secret-ballot election would give Brylane too much time to campaign against unionization and influence workers to vote no.
The Indianapolis office of the NLRB sided with UNITE in a September ruling, that was upheld by the board’s central office in December.
In the initial ruling out of Indianapolis, regional NLRB director Roberto Chavarry wrote that allowing employers to call for votes would give them too much power.
“Employers might file petitions early in organizational campaigns in an effort to obtain a vote rejecting the union before the union has had a reasonable opportunity to organize,” Chavarry wrote in his decision.
One difficulty UNITE faced in rallying support for its cause is that, since Brylane is a catalog retailer, its physical presence is minimal — there aren’t Brylane stores for demonstrators to target. To attract attention to its cause, the union targeted some of the high-end, image-conscious brands that Brylane’s parent company, the French conglomerate Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, holds stakes in. UNITE demonstrators targeted the Manhattan openings of Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney stores as part of its effort to attract attention to its campaign.
A critical step in the campaign came during a June demonstration, when UNITE president Bruce Raynor, along with New York State Sen. Thomas K. Duane and AFL-CIO executive vice president Linda Chavez marched from the street in front of Brylane’s Seventh Avenue headquarters to the lobby in front of the 21st-floor office of Brylane chief executive Russell Stravitz to ask for a meeting.
While Stravitz didn’t come out that day — indeed the only Brylane employee to appear in the lobby while the union representatives waited was a harried-looking woman who stepped off the elevator and slipped quietly into the office — he later agreed to a meeting with Raynor and other UNITE representatives. That began the negotiations that led to the eventual decision to allow the card-check to proceed.