A Home Depot store in northeast Philadelphia may soon become the first-ever in the home improvement chain to unionize, giving new impetus to a vibrant U.S. labor movement attacking the retail sector.
Vince Quiles, who works in the store’s front desk, filed a petition this week for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. Quiles, 27, said he collected more than 100 signed union cards from his colleagues in orange aprons in just over a month.
Unions have made a number of inroads at prominent, historically non-union companies in recent months: Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s and REI. Quiles sees no reason why Home Depot shouldn’t be next.
“We’re inspired by Starbucks and Amazon — let us be the catalyst for Home Depot,” Quiles told HuffPost. “I know the people in this building. … They are not really treated as they should be [be]with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Quiles and his colleagues call their union The Home Depot Workers United — an echo of recent successful campaigns like Starbucks Workers United and Trader Joe’s United. For now, the effort is not affiliated with an established union that would have staff and resources to devote to organizing.
“People come in and break their ass. They work really hard, and it’s been a struggle during the pandemic. »
– Home Depot Worker Vince Quiles
Quiles said he got legal advice from a pro bono attorney and did the card collecting on his own. An NLRB employee in Philadelphia had to sit down for about an hour and a half to walk him through the paperwork he would need to file and how the unionization process would work.
“She’s been extremely helpful,” said Quiles, who has worked at Home Depot for five years. “I was flying by the seat of my pants.”
Although union membership is near an all-time low, American employers are currently facing a wave of unionization. The labor board recorded a 58% increase in union election petitions in the first nine months of fiscal 2022 compared to the same period a year earlier. The tight labor market has transferred more bargaining power to workers, while the pandemic has undoubtedly altered the way many of them perceive their work.
Quiles, the father of a 1-year-old, says many of his co-workers started to feel devalued.
“I don’t think we are unique in this experience. I felt like the pandemic just highlighted the dynamic that we knew was there, but maybe people didn’t want to acknowledge it,” he said. “Who wants to admit that people don’t really respect you and that everything you watch is just a means to an end?”
Home Depot did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Forming the first retail union in a powerful corporation like Home Depot is a daunting task. (Although no Home Depot store has a retail union yet, the Teamsters represent some of the company’s drivers in Southern California.)
The company has long resisted organizing efforts and subjected workers to anti-union rhetoric. Quiles is an outsider in every way: he admitted that he had no formal experience in organizing and that many colleagues who might be supportive are afraid of their employer’s reaction.
But the Amazon Labor Union’s upset election victory at the JFK8 warehouse in New York earlier this year made the long-running organizing efforts more viable. Quiles said he was in contact with ALU President Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker who was fired by the company after leading a safety protest.
The two campaigns share at least one thing in common so far: in both cases, workers demanded a union election before winning a clear majority of support through union cards.
Workers only need the signatures of 30% of the workplace for the labor board to greenlight an election. But usually a union wants to have a supermajority on board before filing under the assumption that the company will unleash an anti-union campaign that will peel off its supporters. At the time of the election, the trade union will have to obtain the majority of the votes cast to become the representative of the workers.
“Unions have made a number of inroads at prominent, historically non-union companies in recent months: Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s and REI, among others.”
The Home Depot store has about 276 employees, and Quiles says he got just under 40% cards, meaning there’s still a lot of organizational work to do. (The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported how many workers had signed on.)
Quiles said he moved forward when he did because he wanted to demonstrate to skeptical colleagues as soon as possible that the campaign was real.
“Once you all [journalists] started hitting me and people from the company came into the store, everyone was like, ‘Holy damn this is the real deal,'” he said.
A company in Home Depot’s situation would typically mount an aggressive counter-campaign as soon as possible. This could include so-called “captive audience” meetings where managers or outside consultants attempt to persuade workers to vote against the union. Supervisors also tend to pull workers off the floor for one-on-one conversations to assess their stance on the union and how they might be pushed into the “no” column.
Before an election can be scheduled, the labor board must certify that Home Depot Workers United has gathered a sufficient expression of interest through union cards. In the meantime, Quiles said the attorney he worked with was training him and his colleagues on how to spot unfair labor practices in case Home Depot crosses legal boundaries to fight the union drive.
Whether the union effort succeeds or fails, Quiles said he hopes it changes labor for the better.
“People come in and break their ass. They work very hard and it has been a struggle during the pandemic,” he said. “Whatever happens, [Home Depot is] are going to take us seriously and they are going to respect the people in this building more.
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