The Hardest Organizing Job In Labor

November 22, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco

Phil Andrews.

Phil Andrews.

New York, NY – Everyone involved in the labor movement knows that organizing is hard. But Phil Andrews, director of the RWDSU’s Retail Organizing Project will tell you that trying to organize low-paid, retail workers is harder still. Watch Video

“Typically, the normal way of organizing where you just get a lead and you go in and run elections until you win just doesn't work in retail,” Andrews recently told LaborPress. “Mostly because retail union density is low. As a result, wages, benefits and working conditions are very poor – and getting worse.”

With the average turnover rate at typical retail stores running 200-300 percent in a single year, it quickly becomes abundantly clear why organizers like Andrews have such a difficult task trying to rally marginalized workers who hate their jobs so much, they’re constantly looking for a way out. 

“If workers don't have that kind of longevity and dedication to their job, the idea of going through the process of organizing a union through traditional means is just not appealing,” Andrews says. “The person will say to you, 'Look, I don't even want to be here next month, let alone next year. So, why would I stick my neck out and do any extra work for this job that I don't care about? As soon as I find another job that gives me more hours or a 25-cent raise, I'm going to take it.’”

Andrews and the rest of his RWDSU cohorts are currently facing this exact same dilemma attempting to organized hard-pressed retail workers toiling at Dylan’s Candy Bar on the Upper East Side. 

Employees helping to make designer Ralph Lauren’s daughter richer than she already is, catering to tourists, celebrities and sweet-tooth aficionados citywide, say the pay at Dylan’s Candy Bar is bad, and they can’t even secure 40-hours of work per-week even though they are supposed to be full-time.

A core group of employees working inside the store and dedicated to organizing have been trying hard since last summer to bring Dylan Lauren to the bargaining table, but the transient workforce has continually undermined their efforts. 

According to Andrews, the high turnover rate is intentional, and meant to keep workers weak and unable to organize. 

“Every single month, there are a dozen new people [to talk to],” Andrews says. “And it's not uncommon for the store to just layoff people and then hire new people the following week, or to cut people's hours down to 10 or 15 hours a week. You really can't survive on that no matter what your wage is.”

Andrews and the RWDSU aren't giving up. Instead, the union and its supporters working inside Dylan’s Candy Bar have decided to get creative and seek out innovative new ways to secure proper working conditions. 

“We think Dylan is a vulnerable target,” Andrews said. “At this store it’s not about money, it's about brand image and cross-marketing. There are many ways in which we can go after that brand identity and damage it in a way that they don't want.”

Last month, workers at Dylan’s Candy Bar donned green-haired “Oopa-Loompa” costumes and picketed outside the store located at 1011 Third Avenue. Further actions at other Dylan’s Candy Bar-related events are also being considered. 

Innovation and adaptability are working for the RWDSU. While organizing low-wage retail workers remains challenging, the union has scored a number of notable victories organizing diverse groups of retail workers including those employed at Guitar Center, a thrift store in the Bronx and boutiques located along the Broadway shopping corridor. 

The union has also made headlines successfully organizers workers in New York’s notoriously anti-union car wash industry.  

“The RWDSU and [President] Stuart Appelbaum have been really willing to let some very good organizers on the ground – of which my team is only one part – tryout some different strategies,” Andrews says. “Working from the ground up and trying different things. Unlike other groups that may have unlimited resources and a top down approach, we talk to workers to try and figure out what will work for them.”

With that philosophy firmly in mind, Andrews and his team are next setting their sights on organizing employees who work on commission in department stores and other outlets that sell suits, shoes, mattresses and electronics. 

“We believe there's really no one-size-fits-all for any group of workers,” Andrews says. “You have to approach each one distinctly and listen to what their concerns are.”

November 20, 2013

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