About 100 union activists, sales associates and elected officials rallied outside of H&M’s Herald Square flagship Wednesday afternoon calling for a fair new contract.
If the gigantic inflatable rat with an “Empower Workers” sign wasn’t enough of a clue to passersby, activists wore red T-shirts imprinted with Local 1102 Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. At times chanting “Union, union” and “Stand Up, Fight Back,” supporters cheered intermittently, holding signs that read, “Bad Pay Is Out of Fashion,” and “H&M Clopenings Can Kill.” Curtailing “clopening’s” — the practice of having an employee close a store at night and open the same location the following day — is one of the demands union members are asking of H&M management. They are also negotiating for guaranteed hours for part-timers, dental and vision benefits for workers, the right to time off after five consecutive days worked and longevity increases for employees with three years or more of tenure.
Having met with H&M representatives earlier Wednesday and with other meetings scheduled for later, Alvin Ramnarain, president of the Local 1002 of the RWDSU, said he doesn’t expect the matter to be resolved quickly. Answering a few questions, while the band Larry & the Larrytones warmed up the crowd, he said, “We’ve been meeting with the company over the last several months and it’s not moving at the table. This rally is just another way of amplifying our voice for the company to hear our voice at every level. The company is just opposed to providing any additional benefits to workers who are part of a union. It’s not about that they can’t afford to do it. What we’re asking for has very little to do with actual costs.”
H&M’s 1,400 employees in New York represent a fraction of the Swedish conglomerate H&M Group’s 171,000 workers worldwide. The workers’ contract expired in March and was extended through May. “What we’re asking for other retailers are already doing — Zara guarantees 20 hours, Modell’s guarantees 15 hours — so there’s no reason why they can’t do it,” Ramnarain said.
A handful of security guards kept a watchful eye on the protesters, standing outside the 60,000-square-foot store. A few H&M shoppers caught the commotion, looking down at the sidewalk from the store’s second floor. After the hourlong event wound down, an H&M spokesman said via e-mail, “H&M has a long-term commitment to be a 100 percent fair and equal company. That means protecting our employees and our stakeholders in all that we do. We believe strongly in the freedom of association and the right for all of our employees to be able to make informed choices about their careers, the environment in which they work and ultimately their future. At the moment, we are renegotiating our contract with UFCW local 1102 in order to best meet those needs. We are open to mutually beneficial and constructive discussions with them in order to move forward and find the best possible solution for all of our employees that maintains our strong value of believing in people and their rights.”
H&M chairman Stefan Persson’s billionaire status was mentioned more than once by a few officials, in challenging why the company hasn’t covered the added costs. The company posted $26.7 billion in sales in 2017. Despite some intermittent light rain, supporters (including a few wearing Macy’s name tags) kept their spirits up, especially when passing trucks blasted their horns in support.
As the program wrapped up, Artavia Milliam, a full-time employee at H&M for 10 years, told WWD that some staffers at the East 18th Street store where she works have left for more steady work hours. She also called for an incremental raise for workers who have been with the retailer for three years or longer.
How, if at all, Wednesday’s rally will register with consumers remains a question mark. Lunchtime shoppers in the flagship Wednesday appeared more focused on the clothes on the rack than the ruckus outside. Ayeshs Siddik said she had noticed the rally on the way into the store. Unfazed, she said, “I’m just here to shop.”
Nearby, Judy Berlfein checked out the swimwear. She, too, had noticed the crowd, but said, “I’m just trying to turn off the world for a week. I’m on vacation from L.A. I don’t get to turn it off very often, but I’m going to really try.”