Tensions are running high at a Toronto-based Holt Renfrew store, where workers are in the final throes of a pioneering unionization drive.
Expected to vote on whether to join the United Food and Commercial Workers of Canada (UFCW) on Thursday, workers at the Yorkdale Shopping Centre store are hoping to make it the first of 11 Holt’s locations to unionize — an effort they say could quickly spread.
“What’s been the most resounding has been the overwhelming support that has come from not only employees of our store saying they want this, but from the other stores,” said one longtime Holt’s employee, who has been active in organizing at the Yorkdale location.
“It shows us that the issues and the grievances we have had at our local store are shared amongst every single store in the entire country.”
According to this employee and others who spoke to The Huffington Post on the condition of anonymity, the drive is a grassroots effort that began several months ago, primarily in response to reductions in commission payouts to workers even as the company enjoys strong sales.
They say the organizing effort has been met with a strong anti-union campaign from the company, which has been holding twice-daily staff meetings in the run up to the vote, and has wallpapered staff areas with posters warning about the downsides of unionization.
One worker described the corporate response as “very emotional,” noting that several former store managers have been brought in to these staff meetings to plead the retailer’s case.
“They keep saying, ‘We’re a family,’” the worker said. “I think we’d call child protective services if we were a family.”
Alix Box, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for Holt Renfrew, declined a request for an interview from HuffPost.
But in an email on Wednesday, she said that the company is encouraging workers to “be informed and to vote.”
“There is nothing more important to us at Holt Renfrew than our people and our culture. We are listening, and strongly committed to partnering with our employees,” she said.
“We believe that the direct employment relationship that we have with our employees is the best way to help ensure a great work environment.”
Box says the application for union certification, filed at the Ontario Labour Relations Board last week, affects 174 of the store’s 247 employees.
The private company, which is owned by the Galen Weston family, is not obligated to divulge financial information. But media reports suggest that like other luxury retailers, Holt’s emerged from the recession in relatively good shape, and the company is planning a major expansion of the Yorkdale location over the next year.
Yet Jonathan Lobo, organizing coordinator for UFCW Local 1000A, says this success has not been shared with Holt Renfrew employees, who he says have been the driving force behind the campaign.
“They were just getting fed up and frustrated with the fact of this company that’s making ridiculous amounts of money and keep taking from the employees,” he said. “They just found that nothing was being done from management [in response to] employee complaints.”
Changes to the compensation structure are at the heart of these grievances. Employees say that a decision to raise commission thresholds and get rid of an incentive that rewarded workers based on sales per hour has translated into a loss of thousands of dollars of income annually.
Workers say they are also protesting the removal of the in-store human resources department.
The employee compensation structure varies widely across the company and within each store, but Holt’s is relatively unique among retailers in offering an opportunity for high-flyers to earn significant returns on sales that can easily amount to tens of thousands of dollars per year. In many cases, the company also often tops-up standard hourly wages with commission and other incentives.
But workers say that cutbacks in recent years have begun to make Holt’s less of a career destination, and more of an everyday retail job.
CLARIFICATION: Former store managers have been brought in to staff meetings to plead the retailer’s case, according to one worker. An earlier version of this store described them as "store managers."