Store of the Future   //   May 16, 2024

For some retail workers, safety threats are a motivation for unionizing

Retail workers are continuing to voice concerns about violence prevention and workplace safety, leading some to support union drives in the hopes of securing trainings and new prevention measures.

Bear Spiegel, is a bookseller at Barnes & Noble at the Union Square location in New York City, which has had a union for about a year. Spiegel said workers have experienced verbal abuse from customers; he recalled someone saying how having pronouns listed on a name badge threatened American family values.

“One of the main reasons we unionized was worker safety,” Spiegel said.

Ensuring worker safety is becoming a top priority for many in the retail industry amid the threats of organized crime, aggravated customers or random acts of violence. In response, some lawmakers are proposing new regulations, like a New York bill that would require companies to host regular trainings and install panic buttons. A recent California proposal would put staffing requirements on self-checkout lanes. But such legislation can take a long time to weave its way to passage, and may be opposed by companies that despise one-size-fits-all requirements.

Meanwhile, on the worker side, some see union contracts as a way to help shore up their protections. Federal data shows there are about 648,000 retail union members, representing about 4.3% of the sector’s workforce. Multiple retail workers who have spoken to Modern Retail on the condition of anonymity have mentioned workplace safety as part of their reasons for organizing. “Safety issues are a major concern with us, because of the lack of training on how to deal with combative or confrontational customers,” one retail worker from New York City said. “There’s not very clear policy [around] how those people are handled.”

Once formed, unions have the potential to weigh in on safety trainings or standards during contract negotiations. Most contracts, if not all, tend to provide some sort of language around required trainings that can be hammered out during the negation process.

Chelsea Connor, director of communications for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said workplace safety language varies based on the contract and the workplace “These are things fought for and won by worker-led union contract negotiations, which happen at different intervals depending on the terms of the contracts,” Connor said,

Some safety-related provisions may include minimum staffing numbers at stores to ensure that someone isn’t working alone. Often, there may be a provision that safety issues go to a labor management committee, which is formed after the contract is ratified to go over issues that come up. Connor said that means workers can push for the particular trainings they need throughout the term of the contract as workplace issues change.

“Our retail contracts provide for safety trainings for workers around workplace violence in some form or at a minimum a process by which to obtain them in some form through labor-management committees or general training outlines,” Connor said.

At the Union Square Barnes & Noble, Spiegel said the workers received de-esclalation training only after their union vote. This can help associates handle customers who are aggravated by giving them ideas and examples on how to diffuse a situation. “We will often get people who are combative, who are unstable. We, as workers, are the first line of people who have to deal with that before managers or security become involved,” Spiegel said.

But Spiegel said workers would like to see requirements around such trainings. The workers are also pushing for language that helps them communicate with security guards who are employed by a third-party company. There can be high turnover with security guards, who are mostly there for loss prevention, Spiegel said, and it could be beneficial for the workforce to have a better sense of who they are and what the security company is doing. Panic buttons are not in the contract language, Spiegel said, but “it would be great” if they were. “There’s truly so much that we need that we’re fighting for that I don’t think should be controversial things to put in a contract,” Spiegel said, “but we’re having trouble agreeing on a lot of these things.”

A spokesperson for Barnes and Noble didn’t immediately return a response for comment on the status of contract negotiations or whether it addresses worker safety.

David Johnston, vice president of asset protection and retail operations at the National Retail Federation, told Modern Retail that workplace safety is the number one priority for retailers — regardless of union status at the store.

Many companies are increasingly concerned about theft and violence stemming from organized retail crime rings, Johnston said. In response, retailers are frequently putting in policies to observe and report, rather than have an associate intervene. Armed security guards may not act as a deterrent in those situations, Johnston said, with multiple instances of security guards being shot during robbery attempts tallying up over the past year.

“Shoplifting is no longer the invisible crime,” Johnston said. “There are walking up and loading shopping carts in front of employees. And when there’s an attempt to apprehend them or engage with them, many are taking threatening activities or acts of violence. It’s always better to remove yourself, observe, report and notify law enforcement.”