Fantastic feat

NEW YORK (PAI) — It’s one 10-shoe-store chain in New York City, involving 95 workers, but the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s win at Footco is a glimpse into the future, where unions create new strategies to organize not just stores, but communities.

That focus reached from the streets of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick to the office of state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum.

The win came with the aid of churches, local organizations, Spitzer — who pursued the company for minimum wage and overtime law violations — and a community group called Make The Road By Walking.

The 1,500-member group organized marches through Bushwick and got 1,000 signatures supporting a boycott unless Footco owners agreed to abide by card-check recognition of the union. The boycott was set to go last August when the owners yielded. The company agreed to not fight organizing efforts and to recognize the union if a majority of workers signed statements of support. The union got 90 percent within weeks and ratified its first-ever contract in mid-February.

“The people involved in this effort were absolutely amazing. And they were so empowered by finding out what they could do for themselves,” Appelbaum said.

The three-year Footco pact gives workers a starting wage of $7.25 an hour, rising to $8.15 hourly on July 1 of its third year. It also guarantees workers a 45-hour week, and that means time-and-a-half for the last five hours. Until now, Footco workers earned as little as $4.75 hourly for working up to 60 hours, and got straight time only. Jose Enriques, 32, an immigrant from Mexico who has worked at Footco for five years, told The New York Times, “Now I will make the same money working 45 hours a week that I used to make working 55 or 60 hours.”

The agreement also gives the workers, for the first time ever, three days paid sick leave, two paid bereavement days and one week paid vacation.

RWDSU prepared for the campaign by researching Footco, the communities and corporate structure for months.

“In Bushwick, we issued a report, ‘Street Of Shame,’ about the conditions on Knickerbocker Avenue,” location of one Footco store, Appelbaum said. RWDSU and its community allies kept pushing one basic message: “These are not just workers, these are your neighbors.”

“We had demonstrators marching through the streets banging pots and pans” on the weekend before Christmas, in a parade reminiscent of the Latin American ancestral homes of many Footco workers. “The signs were in English and Spanish: ‘What workers want for Christmas is fair pay.’” RWDSU brought Spitzer’s office into the fray on pay, presenting him with evidence of wage violations.

RWDSU is now expanding the campaign to other non-food retail sites in the Big Apple, and working with other community groups elsewhere in New York.