Home Depot Workers Unionize, Tired of ‘No Training, No Staff’

On September 19, workers petitioned to form a union of 276 workers at a Home Depot in northeast Philadelphia. If successful, the independent union would be first at the home repair chain, the fifth largest private employer in the US with 500,000 workers.

Vince Quiles, who has worked at the store for five years, says the union effort has garnered over 100 signatures for an election in just five weeks.

At the start of the pandemic, Quiles was promoted to supervisor in the sanitation department. Plumbing is the store’s highest-volume area with around 6,000 sales per day, but the company has done little to prepare it. “No training, no staff,” says Quiles. “They said, ‘You’re good with people, find out.'”

Eventually, Quiles managed the department so well that he was eventually offered a promotion to a managerial position. He refused. “When I level up, I’m basically just going to care about the people I’m cool with, the ones I go to work with every day, and the ones who talk to me about their families,” says Quiles. “And I’m supposed to look these people in the eye when they ask for a raise and say the company can’t afford it.”

record profit

Home Depot can afford it, Quiles knows. On his hiatus, Quiles would research the company’s finances and can count the profits of his own business by heart. “The store made $30,170,052 in profit last year. Her goal was $26,754,634. They exceeded their plan by $3,415,418.”

Home Depot, which has 2,317 stores in the US, Canada and Mexico, has made record-breaking profits during the pandemic, fueled by a wave of homeowners looking to improve their homes. As demand increased, the company increased its prices. Higher prices caused transactions for lower-income customers to fall, but higher-income customers more than made up for the loss. “In the second quarter [of 2022]we achieved the highest quarterly sales and earnings in our company’s history,” CEO Ted Decker recently announced.

Quiles began to question why the company couldn’t pay its workers more. Home Depot made a profit of $16 billion last year. In a meeting with a regional vice president, Quiles asked why the company couldn’t pay bonuses for operating machines like forklifts, or for translating for Spanish-speaking clients, or for working in multiple departments. The regional manager stated that the company spent $1 billion on employee compensation. “They spent $1 billion on 500,000 employees,” Quiles recalls, “and $15 billion on stock buybacks” — not to mention another $7 billion on dividends from investors.

“Bro, how can I fix this?”

Meanwhile, workers at the Home Depot in Philadelphia routinely worry about paying bills, having enough food for their children and themselves, or paying the rent. The starting wage in the store is around $14.50. The Walmart they share a mall with pays more.

All of this caused the workers to leave. With uncompetitive pay, stifling client numbers, and little to no training, it was difficult to retain new hires. One day, Quiles recalls, he met a new employee, Aaron, who was working in the plumbing department. He tried to train him, but was always drawn to other tasks or questions. Customers came by, showed pictures of complicated pipe repairs and asked for solutions that the employees couldn’t answer.

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“I can’t tell you how many images I would see like, ‘Bro, how do I fix this?'” Quiles recalls. “I would piss so many people off and say, ‘If you don’t know, why do you work in plumbing?’ I was like, ‘If I knew this shit, I’d be a plumber and not making $19.25 an hour as a supervisor.’” Within two months, Aaron, the new hire, who was making $14.50 an hour, was on the scale of Jobs overwhelmed, and without any meaningful training, had quit.

Inspiration from ALU

After taking his concerns up the corporate chain, Quiles decided that change would not come voluntarily from management. So he started doing more research.

Quiles watched the action of the Amazon Union in Staten Island and was intrigued by Chris Small’s journey. It wasn’t dissimilar; Smalls had also been promoted at Amazon, began raising concerns and complaints, and was blocked by management. And the magnitude of the Amazon Union victory in Staten Island gave Quiles hope: “If Chris Smalls could do it in a warehouse with 8,000+ people, we can do it in our 300-person shop.”

So he called the NLRB to learn more about the process, watched interviews with Smalls like he did, and started having conversations with people about their jobs. “I would say, ‘How does it feel to work here? How do you feel about working conditions and remuneration? I’m not part of management.” They would give me their raw, emotional experience.”

In just five weeks, he and a few colleagues collected over 100 signatures and submitted them to the board.

“We’ve applied for a union, are you interested in that now?”

About a month ago, Home Depot management got wind of the effort. They handed out “You ask, we listen” flyers around the store and sent out employee surveys to address concerns. They talked about setting up staff-only restrooms and setting up outdoor port-a-potties for customers. But they didn’t want to talk about the core issues the workers were organizing around.

“You’re talking about a staff toilet, you’re not talking about why people aren’t staying. You can’t just give a chess player five pawns and then have no knight, bishop or rook and say, ‘Go win the game.’”

Employee management was flown into the store to hold face-to-face meetings with employees and face-to-face talks about how little a union could do for them. The branch manager was changed overnight. But Quiles thinks the move backfires. “Now it’s funny that companies walk through the store and talk to people,” says Quiles, “and they think they’re doing something, but it backfires.” People say, ‘Oh, we applied for a union, now do you care?’”

This version of the article was published on Labor Notes.

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