Irish retailer Primark opened its first US store in Boston just over two months ago, but it's already embroiled in a full-scale labor dispute.
Union officials say the company has fired or forced out at least 50 people at its Downtown Crossing store for backing their organizing efforts, and has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. Primark, the low-cost fashion chain that has many unionized employees in Europe, said some workers have been terminated for poor performance, not union activity, but would not say how many.
United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1145 sees the Primark store as an opportunity to set a collective bargaining precedent for US Primark stores as they continue to expand across the country. The store's location, at the former site of Filene's Basement — whose workers were represented by UFCW for almost a century — also adds to the union appeal.
But one Primark employee, Sonya Joseph, 40, said that after she signed up with the union, her schedule was changed to times she couldn't work.
Erica Morrison, 24, said she missed several days of work for health reasons, though it was only after she expressed interest in the union that it became an issue, and she was fired.
"After I signed the [union] card, that was when I started to get harassed," Morrison said.
Primark refuted Local 1145's claims that they fired workers for union activity, noting that many of its 62,000employees around the world are unionized. The company declined to comment on individual cases.
"Primark has not discharged any employee for their support of the union," the company said in a statement. "While some terminations have occurred, most were for those who had poor attendance, stopped showing up for work, and/or engaged in employee misconduct."
Primark said the union can file for an official secret ballot election with the labor board, a procedure the union opposes because it delays the process and gives the company time to dissuade workers from joining.
Local 1145 started organizing Primark employees and holding demonstrations before the store opened in September, and said that more than 260 of the store's approximately 500 workers have signed cards indicating their interest in joining a union. To formally organize a union, the majority of employees must show that they are in favor, but with 50 of them no longer on staff, the majority could be in jeopardy.
When organizers first began signing up workers in front of the store, the company did not interfere, according to union officials. But once it became clear that a lot of workers were interested, the store started holding required meetings, discouraging union involvement, and asking people who had signed a card to raise their hands.
Primark disputed that characterization and said there is "no basis for this allegation."
Local 1145 has filed a charge with the labor board alleging that Morrison was fired for engaging in union activity, according to the board. The union said it is policy not to file charges until workers agree to testify, and it plans to file additional charges accordingly.
Primark said the union has intimidated workers to get them to join, including cursing at them and following them onto the T. The union denies this claim.
Primark said that it respects the right of its employees to join a union. "Primark has a long history of working cooperatively with unions throughout the world and certainly has no bias against unions," the company said in a statement. "Primark will not influence the decision of employees as to whether or not to have a union."