About two dozen Macy’s employees marched in a tight oval outside the retailer’s Bellingham store on Black Friday, Nov. 24, as part of their union’s picket line. The workers voted last month — nearly unanimously — to launch an Unfair Labor Practice strike after months of failed contract negotiations with the retailer and increased safety concerns.
Outside Bellis Fair mall, a worker barked into a megaphone, “Their 50 cent.”
“Won’t pay rent,” striking union employees and community members replied in a call-and-response chant.
Workers say an emergency text that went out to Bellingham employees on Thanksgiving evening, shortening the store hours on what is one of the busiest shopping days of the year, was due to the strike. A sign taped to the store’s doors provided new hours as seasonal, non-union workers and members of Macy’s management team prepared to open at 11 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. Friday.
Striking workers said they would return to their jobs on Monday.
The most contentious points in the bargaining process for a contract that expired in February are centered on wages and employee safety, following trends of increased retail theft.
Macy’s workers voted nearly unanimously on Oct. 6 to authorize the Unfair Labor Practice strike if Macy’s failed to offer “substantial improvements” during contract negotiations. The chanting employees waving signs outside each external entrance to the store Friday morning was evidence that such improvements were not made.
The employees outside the mall joined those in Lynnwood and Tukwila by asking community members to not shop at Macy’s this weekend. Organizers say more than 17,000 people signed an online pledge to respect striking workers.
While a handful of potential customers who arrived after the store opened took one of the fliers handed out by the striking workers and left, others went inside to continue their holiday shopping.
The union was aware that the timing of the strike came at a crucial moment for the retailer, said Joe Mizrahi, the secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union 3000 (UFCW 3000).
“These are the days when Macy’s most relies on these associates that they’re treating poorly,” Mizrahi said. “It also coincides with where we are in the bargaining process.”
SEC paperwork filed by the company this year noted that the “retail business is seasonal in nature with a high proportion of sales and operating income generated in the months of November and December.”
“Macy’s response to our safety concerns has been wholly insufficient,” stated the union’s strike authorization vote document. “The company initially rejected our Union Bargaining Team’s proposal to provide onsite security during all times the store is open and then rejected our compromise that workers will be protected from discipline when calling mall security or the police.”
Debbie Walk, who has worked for Macy’s in Bellingham for at least eight years, said it was “ridiculous” that employees were having to bargain for the right to call the police when they felt a situation was unsafe.
“We’re seeing a lot of retail theft and they don’t seem to be doing enough to stop it,” said Walk, who works in the retailer’s fine jewelry department. “We feel unsafe a lot of times.”
When Liisa Luick — a Macy’s Alderwood sales associate and a shop steward for the union — witnessed someone shoplifting in May, she called Macy’s managers and then mall security. After they allegedly failed to act, she called 911.
Luick was put on unpaid leave for more than two weeks because of how she handled the incident. Ultimately, the company provided back pay after she returned to work. UFCW 3000 filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against Macy’s for disciplining Luick because of her position on the union’s bargaining team.
“It’s alarming that Macy’s has instead opted to intimidate workers who seek outside help, creating a hazardous working environment,” the voting document stated.
A letter from Macy’s to UFCW 3000 stated that Luick was suspended because “she violated the Shortage Prevention Policy by calling 911 to report a person she perceived was engaged in suspicious activity, after she had been instructed by management not to call 911.”
Luick denied that characterization of the incident.
“Now we are afraid to call 911 when safety issues come up because we worry we will get in trouble, or even lose our jobs,” Luick said. “Workers don’t feel safe in our store, and now they are scared of retaliation so they’ve stopped calling for help when they see a threat. Macy’s needs to step up and make our stores safer for workers and customers.”
Luick said she volunteered to be part of the 2023 bargaining team, not only because of the safety concerns she witnessed on the store floor at Westfield Southcenter in Tukwila but also because of the lack of significant raises in the last decade.
“We’re not happy about the 50 cents more an hour,” Walk said of the company’s proposed annual general wage increase for the three-year contract. “It’s really expensive to live here.”
Union members rejected Macy’s proposal, which included a $17 per hour minimum wage. Minimum wage in the state is slated to rise to $16.28 per hour at the beginning of next year.
“We’ve seen the standards at Macy’s over the last 15 years and beyond that just really deteriorate,” Mizrahi said.
He explained the retailer has gone from a place where employees can make a living wage by helping shoppers find the perfect gift to somewhere that is seeking to pay most workers what is anticipated to be minimum wage by midway through the three-year contract.
“Macy’s seeks to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to the colleague, company and union,” said Allison Edheimer, a spokesperson for Macy’s who declined to provide any further details.
Macy’s management in Bellingham declined to comment for this story.
As of Jan. 28 — excluding seasonal employees — Macy’s had 94,570 full-time and part-time employees, with only 8% represented by unions.
More than 400 of those union members are part of UFCW 3000, which represents more than 50,000 members working in grocery, retail, health care, meat packing, cannabis and other industries across Washington state, northeast Oregon and northern Idaho.
“Macy’s is not the first or last strike in Washington,” Mizrahi said. “Providence nurses and hospital staff and now Macy’s employees are demanding CEOs share the wealth made off of their hard work.”