In the Blog

The new must-have for Fall 2011? Unions.

November 3rd, 2011     by Meg Pirie     Comments

On October 31, The Toronto Star published a story detailing a successful union drive at H&M in Square One, a large shopping center in Mississauga. The process began in July, when Amy Tran, a member of the United Food and Commercial Union (UFCW), approached Sabrina Butt. Was she interested in a union, Tran inquired? Butt, an H&M employee since 2008, took time to gauge how receptive her full- and part-time colleagues were to this proposition.

By mid-August, a union membership drive was in full swing. Union cards were signed and information was distributed. Reasons for organizing collectively varied from better training and scheduling, posting job opportunities internally first, clearly defined, fair wages (it was not unheard of for new hires to make more than colleagues with more seniority), and the hope that employees’ suggestions would be implemented.

On October 6th, the labour board certification vote took place to ratify, or approve, Square One H&M’s decision to join the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union. Workers voted in favour of unionization, 25-13, a clear ‘yes’ mandate.

The successful mobilization amongst H&M employees is noteworthy for several reasons. First, as a space, retail is often projected as apolitical. In a capitalist society that simultaneously relies on conspicuous consumption and the exploitation of labour in Canada and abroad, these places in which we exchange money for goods (like H&M) become aesthetically pleasing and cheery, filled with attractive images and trendy music. The people, politics, and geographies who make and sell the items are enveloped into the [insert retail chain here] ‘family.’ In short, capitalism and corporate dogma define our relationships, especially in retail environments: how we behave towards colleagues; who we ‘trust’; choreographed conversations between customer and associate; the way we articulate (or silently internalize) grievances or dissent to management.

By confronting these relationships, normalized to the point of infallibility, the now-unionized employees at H&M have challenged ideas concerning how these relationships unfold, along with what sectors are associated with collective organizing. This, too, is bold, empowering and touching. By organizing collectively, the Square One H&M staff shattered the myth that malls, shopping and clothes are devoid of politics. Their lived experiences within labour were linked to broader systems of domination and resistance. The personal is undeniably political.

Of course, this organizing relied on (a) safe space(s) outside of work. With some resistance from management (H&M is actually viewed as very union friendly, compared to other retail conglomerates), workers met in nearby places to strategize and discuss. Having a place outside of work, free from surveillance and self-censorship is critical. Another critical issue? Sabrina Butt reached out to full- and part-time staff, a great way to mitigate any divide-and-conquer, anti-union efforts on the part of management, should they attempt such a thing. This shows solidarity and mutual respect amongst colleagues.

Further, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union should be applauded for their recruitment tactics. I find this sort of guerrilla ‘shopping’ to be an incredibly savvy means of extending an invitation and providing the requisite information to get the ball rolling for a union membership drive. For those among us who have worked in retail, the process of starting a union can seem daunting. It becomes difficult not to internalize corporate rhetoric that you a) don’t ‘need’ a union…because you’re happy, dammit! Be happy! and b) even if you wanted a union, you couldn’t start one. Well, in the words of Jack Layton, the brave employees at H&M have shown us this: “Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.”

Well, we can achieve great things towards progressive ends. Especially when we work together.

Has this whetted your appetite for organizing? Inspired you to take on those interconnected structures of power and dominance? We hope so! Make sure you stay tuned for Shameless’ upcoming labour edition, hitting magazine stands this December!

Finally, if you would like to read Vanessa Lu’sToronto Star article in full, you can do so here.

Tags: activist report, on the job, shameless behaviour

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