NEW YORK — Whether the lighting isn’t perfect, the hangers aren’t quite right or someone has simply thrown a fit, last-minute glitches often pop up to slow the opening of big-name designer boutiques.
UNITE organizers learned this for themselves Wednesday when they pulled up at 10 a.m. in front of Alexander McQueen’s new store on West 14th Street in Manhattan, where the workmen were still cleaning the sidewalk, leaving the demonstrators no place to set up. So they drove around the block for half an hour.
For 10 months, UNITE has been trying to unionize the workers at a Brylane Inc. distribution center in Indianapolis. After spending months deadlocked with the catalog retailer’s management over how to determine whether a majority of the 1,000 workers want to be unionized, the union this spring decided to start targeting corporate siblings of the Pinault Printemps Redoute-owned company. PPR owns a majority stake in Gucci, which in turns owns a majority stake in McQueen’s firm.
So when the workmen finished up, about a dozen UNITE staffers hopped out of their van and set up a mock sweatshop on the street. Three union interns sat and cut fabric, and with the temperature in New York approaching 90 degrees, within minutes they were producing real sweat.
"We want to send a message to Alexander McQueen," said Mary Kay Devine, field director for the union’s Brylane campaign. "You’re in the Gucci family…you have that direct power to go to them and say, ‘We don’t want our names connected to this.’"
Frazzled staffers at the store referred all questions to a Gucci spokeswoman, who in a phone interview questioned the logic of the Brylane-PPR-Gucci connection.
"The current situation involving Brylane is no way related to Gucci," she said. "In fact, we produce all our goods in Italy, France and Switzerland, where we enjoy excellent relations with our employees and the unions that represent them."
The sticking point between UNITE and Brylane is how to determine whether there are enough workers at the plant who support the union. Brylane officials have said that if a National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned election shows there’s a majority, they will accept a union. UNITE officials counter that the process is too cumbersome and likely to result in intense antiunion lobbying by Brylane executives, so they wish to take a count of the number of employees who have signed union cards, which is also a legally accepted method of unionized recognition."UNITE has claimed for several months now that they have the support of a majority of Brylane employees, but they have not proven this," said a PPR spokesman. "One of the reasons why we don’t feel the card count in itself is the appropriate way to determine [if there is a majority] is that Brylane management received complaints from employees that either they had been pressured into signing the cards or that they were told in signing the cards that the signatures were in order to ask for elections, not necessarily to join the union per se."
Meanwhile, there was little pedestrian traffic on the block between Ninth and 10th Avenues in the meatpacking district, and the contractors putting the finishing touches on the store seemed bewildered by the demonstrators. One of them finished sealing a window, then looked at the three college-age women working in the mock sweatshop, and said, "Only in America."
Responding to a comment from another construction worker who said all the clothes everybody was wearing was likely made in a sweatshop, Wanda Acevado, a student at the SUNY New Paltz, who is interning with UNITE this summer, said: "It’s so hard to tell. The fabrics can be made in America and the garments finished in another country.
Asked if she checked country-of-origin tags on garments before buying them, Acevado said, "When I’m aware of it, yes, I do."
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