The Teamsters Union is attempting to do what no labor organization has been able to accomplish in Southern California in decades: organize a department store.
The union's Local 848 of El Monte is asking about 290 workers at two Bloomingdale's stores at Fashion Island in Newport Beach to allow it to represent them .
The local began circulating petitions Dec. 11 and so far has signed up 48 workers, said Mike Paul, a salesman in the luggage department at Bloomingdale's Home Store. The New York-based chain also operates a larger department store at the mall that employs about 250 people.
To request an election through the National Labor Relations Board, the union must sign up 30% of the workers at the two stores, or about 90 people.
"This is going to take a while, because once the campaign starts, people get scared," Paul said Wednesday.
Bloomingdale's "respects that our workers have a right to organize under the law if they choose to do so," said Carol Sanger, a spokeswoman for Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores Inc., which owns Bloomingdale's. She said the company's stores are the target of organizing drives from time to time but that "in virtually every instance, [workers] have overwhelmingly rejected the union."
Of Federated's 550 stores nationwide, only 25 are unionized. Among those are the Bloomingdale's flagship store at 57th and Lexington in New York, where workers have been unionized since 1938, and the Macy's store in San Francisco, Sanger said.
The organizing effort has not spread to the Bloomingdale's stores in Beverly Hills, Century City and Sherman Oaks, Paul and store officials said.
Local 848 officials were attending an unrelated election in Lancaster on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
Paul said worker dissatisfaction at the Newport Beach stores has grown dramatically in recent months as Bloomingdale's changed sales quotas for many of its workers, in effect eliminating commissions.
Most of the sales staffers in the two Fashion Island stores earn between $6.50 and $14.06 an hour, sources said.
Without commissions, "it's pretty hard to make a good living on that," Paul said.
Kathy McDonnell, manager of the Newport Beach stores, declined to comment, referring calls to Federated. Sanger said the company was not going to get into specifics. "We don't want to negotiate this in the newspaper," she said.
Most unionized workers in Southern California's retail industry are represented by the United Food & Commercial Workers Union.
The supermarket workers are in the third year of a four-year pact that pays the most experienced clerks $15.75 an hour.
Paul said workers at Bloomingdale's chose to go with the Teamsters after watching their successful strike against United Parcel Service of America last summer. The Teamsters are not without experience in the Southland's retail industry, having organized workers at Fedco Inc. stores.