Ahead of their union election on Saturday, workers seeking to unionize at the Barneys New York in Chicago saw support Thursday morning from three aldermen, who visited the luxury department store and urged management to "treat their employees with respect" and stop alleged anti-union "intimidation tactics."
Chicago Alds. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and John Arena (45th) met briefly with the Barneys Chicago manager inside the store, 15 E. Oak St., to voice their concerns about the treatment of workers there.
"The flagship Barneys New York store in Manhattan has had a union for decades, and today the workers in Chicago of Barneys New York are asking for the same protections, for the same rights, as their counterparts in New York City. I think it's only fair. It's only right," Ramirez-Rosa told Progress Illinois outside Barneys.
Barneys' Chicago workers are pushing to unionize with the help of Workers United, an SEIU* affiliate that represents over 600 Barneys associates in New York and New Jersey.
After 74 percent of the 80 Chicago Barneys sales associates and shipping department employees signed union cards, the workers filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on September 17. They did so after the company declined to voluntarily recognize their union, according to Workers United. The NLRB union election is scheduled for Saturday.
"Despite overwhelming support for the union from the workers, management has decided to fight the union, to retain a union-busting law firm. That's wrong," Ramirez-Rosa said. "That's not how we do things in Chicago. In Chicago, we respect workers, and that's why I'm here today, to support the workers and ask Barneys New York to stop their anti-union campaign and give the workers their choice, which is a union contract."
The Chicago Barneys manager declined to comment to Progress Illinois. A representative at the Barneys New York corporate office could not immediately be reached for comment.
Barneys' Chicago workers are seeking a union for two key reasons. First, they don't like the store's credit card and disciplinary policies. Sales associates could face disciplinary action, including being fired, if they don't push customers on signing up for a Barneys credit card, union organizers said.
Barneys was taken over by the hedge fund Perry Capital and private equity firm Yucaipa Companies back in 2012. Union officials said the new discipline and credit card policies were implemented after that happened.
Additionally, Barneys shipping and receiving workers want their pay brought in line with similar workers at other high-end department stores in Chicago.
Aaron Lichko, 31, a Barneys shipping and receiving worker for over a year, has been involved with the union organizing efforts. He said the starting hourly wage in the Barneys shipping department for an entry-level position is $12, but similar workers at other luxury Chicago department stores make an average of $17.
"Our management is doing nothing about that," he said of the wage disparity. "We are like the backbone of the store, and the only reason they can carry on every single day is because of us, and we are severely under appreciated. We deserve way more."
Barneys workers are also fed up with the company's alleged anti-union tactics. Lichko said he and other employees have been required to attend weekly meetings with management, who have allegedly attempted to "coerce us into not being a union."
"That alone is driving us crazy right now," he said. "It's affecting our business, and I know it costs them a lot of money to do this, and they could easily just accept us as a union ... We're not asking for a lot, we're just asking to be treated fairly, and I know they can afford it."
Workers United spokesman Carlos Ginard said the unionization campaign at Barneys is larger than the issue of wages. Barneys' Chicago sales associates, who earn commission, are relatively well paid, Ginard noted. He said they make between roughly $40,000 to $70,000 a year, depending on the department.
"A lot of the sales people are doing this because they want justice, respect, dignity and better wages for the warehouse folks," he said.
Here's more from Ginard plus comments from the aldermen after their meeting with the Barneys manager:
Representatives from Chicago Jobs with Justice were also at today's solidarity action for the Barneys workers.
"What's interesting about the Barneys campaign is that these are not, in fact, low-wage workers. But instead, they are still extremely motivated to organize because they are fighting for dignity and respect on the job," said Chicago Jobs with Justice Executive Director Susan Hurley. "They're fighting for fairness across the Barneys company, and what the standards are in other places where the workers are union."
"And I think that sends a great message that forming a union, and having a union in your workplace, is about your ability to have your rights and a role in your workplace in how things are done," she added. "That's huge."
*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.