March 6, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Low-wage workers in Greenwich Village have stood up to the largest art supplier in the United States and voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU].
In a 15 to 10 vote held on Tuesday, March 4, workers at the Utrecht Art Supplies store located at 21 East 13th Street near Union Square, chose to become the first unionized shop in the nationwide Blick Art Materials chain.
“I think the company really underestimated just how much time people had really put into this and how smart they are” lead organizer Stephanie Basille told LaborPress.
Blick took over the venerable New York City-based Utrecht Art Supplies outfit in April of last year. It wasn’t long after that when workers say things started to change, and employee hours were slashed.
In response, the hard-pressed workers – many of them artists – reached out to the RWDSU and started organizing, officially filing for an election this past January.
“When Utrecht was under different ownership, there was an atmosphere that was very conducive to nurturing workers as both employees and artists,” Basille adds. “Blick made it very clear that they’re just interested in cutting costs and not really investing in their workforce. The workers didn’t like that – and pushed against it.”
Utrecht Art Supplies sales associate Paloma Zapata’s work schedule is limited to between 20 and 25-hours each week. The 25-year-old left her home in Virginia to pursue an art career in New York City, and recently began working at the Greenwich Village store, but almost immediately became involved in the RWDSU’s organizing efforts.
“It’s a changing year where we all need to wake up and figure out what’s going on,” Zapata says. “We’re all human beings and deserve a certain quality of life.”
The successful vote to unionize the East 13th Street store came in the face of a coordinated anti-union blitz from management that included subjecting workers to numerous meetings where employees were held as a “captive audience.”
“Workers were subjected to an aggressive anti-union campaign that included multiple meetings with top management and long pamphlets filled with distortions and lies,” Basille says. “The employees at Utrecht are incredibly hard working and passionate about what they do, and tried on multiple occasions to ask for basic things like better pay and having their hours restored.”
According to the RWDSU, the Blick takeover is indicative of an all-too-common citywide buyout trend where owners are “not interested in the product they're selling – just cutting costs, pushing people out and lowering working conditions.”
“But now, more people are willing to stand up to the status quo,” Basille adds. “One thing the company told us was, ‘Would you rather be working at Target or whatever?’ We turned that on its head and said, no – you can do better.”
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum lauded the Greenwich Village workers for “not giving in to company pressures.”
“Workers throughout this country are speaking out for better working conditions and are doing so by choosing to come together with a collective voice through their union,” Appelbaum said.
According to Zapata, the East 13th Street Utrecht Art Supplies staff is now “quietly celebrating" its victory.
“Overall, the staff is excited and ready for the next move,” Zapata says.
Contract surveys are now being drafted and workers will soon have the opportunity to rate the items they most want included in a new contract. Employees will also soon be asked to nominate co-workers to the new bargaining committee.
Blick management, meanwhile, says that it hopes its continuing “synthesis” of Utrecht Art Supplies will be “seamless” to the store's “valued customers.”
But just how “seamless” that process actually is, remains to be seen.
“Customers have built up a rapport with the sales associates and I think they would be very supportive of their efforts to make the store better for everyone,” Basille says.
Artist Norman Gulamerian and his brother Harold started the Utrecht Art Supplies business back in 1949. There are still five other Utrecht Art Supplies stores located throughout New York City. The union hopes workers at those outlets are taking note of the East 13th Street employees' recent victory.
"Hopefully, the success here will send a message to the five other NYC locations," Basille says.