Strike looming at Macy's iconic New York store

Posted at 6:03 PM, Jun 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-15 18:03:52-04

NEW YORK (AP) -- Workers at Macy's flagship store in New York City are threatening to strike if there is no new contract by a midnight deadline.

The store, a Manhattan tourist hot spot on 34th Street, hasn't had a strike since 1972.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents the 5,000 workers including the 3,500 from the store, said contested issues include health care, unpredictable schedules, and pension plans for senior employees.

Three other area stores may strike as well.

"Fireworks are nice, but if Macy's wants to be a responsible member of the New York community, they have to make sure that the people they employ are able to afford to live in the city,"Appelbaum told The Associated Press, referring to the annual July Fourth show. "Macy's is an iconic New York institution. What happens in these negotiations will set the trend for the city and for the country."

Macy's sees the threat of the strike as real and has placed ads in local newspapers including The New York Times seeking temporary workers. Macy's spokeswoman Elina Kazan says negotiations are ongoing.

"We are committed to keeping the lines of communication open and continuing the talks round-the-clock with the goal of reaching an agreement that is fair and equitable both for our workers and the company," Kazan said. The ads seeking temporary workers are a "standard but necessary practice" to ensure preparedness in the event of a strike.

The labor dispute comes as Macy's struggles with slowing sales growth and intensifying competition on all fronts. Shoppers increasingly spend more of their money at places like TJ Maxx, and other discounters, or they don't spend money in stores at all. Online threats have reshaped the retail landscape.

Industry watchers believe that could become the country's biggest clothing merchant by next year, dethroning Macy's.

Macy's is not alone in facing new pressure from its workers.

The union representing workers at Macy's says the cost of health care for workers is unreasonable. Deductibles for a single worker is $3,000, and $6,000 for a family, according to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union,

The RWDSU's Appelbaum says workers want more predictable schedules. And liberal return policies, which have become crucial in the battle for consumers who are shopping online, have cut into worker sales commissions.

In an email to The Associated Press, Macy's spokesman Jim Sluzewski said that crediting sales returns against a worker's pay is "fair and equitable."

The last threatened strike occurred five years ago, and was averted only when negotiations were extended beyond the midnight deadline.

Some workers, concerned about how they would get by without any wages, are hesitant to walk out.

"I'm coming in tomorrow either way, 'cause I have to pay rent," said Asia Williams of the Bronx, works in merchandising. She plans on crossing the picket line Thursday if there is a strike.

"They (other workers who will stay on the picket line) are scared," Williams said. " But I'm not scared."

Leo Ruiz, a salesman, has been working at the Macy's flagship store for nine years.

"A lot of people don't want to do the strike because they don't want to lose the money," Ruiz said.