By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — Tempers flared nearly as hot as the temperature Wednesday as more than two hundred union leaders, workers and elected officials descended on Macy's Herald Square to demand better compensation, one week before their contract is set to expire.
Speakers shouted "Macy's is a corporate greed machine!" and "Tell Macy's to do the right thing!" to the crowd, which waved union fliers and wore signs that read, "Working at Macy's is Not a Parade."
"We have many of our workers out there making $7.50 an hour. It's just too little to live in New York City," said Ken Bordierie, president of Local 1-S of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is negotiating a new contract on behalf of more than 4,000 employees that work at the chain. Their current contract is set to expire June 15.
But workers and union members say that while company executives are padding their pockets, executives are demanding a series of concessions workers fear will drive down wages, compromise benefits and undermine seniority.
"We get marbles for pay, peanuts," said Alice Kawensky, 54, a part-time worker at Macy's in the women's coats and swimwear departments.
Kawensky said she struggles to make ends meet working 37 hours a week for $8 an hour with no benefits, and nearly lost her East Village apartment when she recently fell behind in her bills.
"It's impossible," Kawensky said.
Among the major points of contention are a new computerized scheduling system that workers fear will make it harder to earn overtime hours and a switch from a defined pension system to a 401(k) for new employees.
"Our concern is we're not getting a fair deal," said one Clinique Counter staffer who has worked at Macy's for 18 years, but asked that her name not be used for fear she would be reprimanded.
She said that while she loves her job and received a good salary working full-time, she's worried about what the new contract will mean for her pension and new workers.
"There was a lot of fear that I would have to get another job," she said.
Macy's, meanwhile said in a statement that it's working closely with the union, downplaying the rally as a regular part of the contract negotiation process.
"Demonstrations are an expected part of the process during contract negotiations prior to the current contract expiration on June 15th," a company spokeswoman said in a statement.
"Our goal is to come to terms amicably with the union to prevent any work stoppage," she said, adding, "We regret any inconvenience this may have caused shoppers today."
While union officials said a strike is a last resort, workers Wednesday said they're prepared to walk off the job if their demands are not met.
"The members won't take anything less than what they've asked for," Bordierie said.
Macy's workers at the union last went on strike in 1972.
But the rally was largely ignored by the many tourists shopping at the store as the rally music blared.
"I'll probably feel sorry for the people... but [in this economy] they're lucky to have a job," said Australia's Robert Oliver, 64, as he left the store while visiting from Sydney with his wife.
Jaci C., 52, visiting from England, said she has serious concerns about the way Macy's treats its workers, which began when her niece worked briefly for the chain.
"They [Macy's executives] should be ashamed of themselves," she said. "They need their policy to be better to their employees."
Still, she said her concerns weren't enough to stop her from shopping at the store.
"It's a lovely place," she said, as she walked away holding two large stuffed bags stuffed with purchases.