NEW YORK (Phil Wahba and Roy Strom) - Workers at four New York City area Macy's Inc stores, including its Herald Square flagship, could strike late on Wednesday for the first time since 1972 should they fail to get a new contract from the department store chain.
The union representing the 4,000 workers is demanding better wages, pension and health benefits, and hours, saying that Macy's recent sales and profit gains warrant improvements in their work conditions.
A spokesman for the union, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), declined to say whether the parties were getting closer to a deal ahead of the midnight deadline on Wednesday, but did confirm that talks are continuing.
"It's a good sign that after intense negotiations, you still have both sides at the table," the spokesman, Dan Morris, told Reuters at midday.
A spokeswoman for Macy's did immediately return a call for comment.
The current contract, signed in 2006, was extended by 45 days in early May, but expires at 11:59 p.m. EDT on Wednesday. Talks are expected to go down to the wire.
Some workers at Macy's 1 million-square-foot flagship store in midtown Manhattan expressed ambivalence about a strike but said it might be a necessary evil.
"It's either we give up short term for long term. Or we work today and we struggle long-term," said Troy Mitchell, a 14-year employee of the Macy's in Manhattan, where he works in the men's clothing section.
If workers struck, the union, which is affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers, said it would be ready to picket and hand out leaflets at the Manhattan store, and the other locations in the New York City boroughs of The Bronx and Queens and in New York State's Westchester County, this week.
Macy's took an ad in Sunday's New York Times looking for temporary sales staff "in anticipation of a possible labor dispute."
Last month, Macy's raised its profit forecast for the rest of the year, and its debt regained investment grade status from rating agency Standard & Poor's after two years.
The labor dispute comes amid moves by workers at other retailers and restaurants seeking to unionize. The UFCW is trying to organize 5,000 workers at 27 Target Corp stores in the New York City area.
Employees of a Target store in Valley Stream, New York, will vote on Friday on whether to join a union. It would be the first Target store to unionize.
This increased activism among retail workers reflects growing frustration at not getting better contracts despite retailers' improving sales, according to one labor relations specialist.
"The unions are saying: 'We really have to fight back," said Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner. "The recession has continued for workers, but it hasn't for corporations. They're doing better."
Still, high unemployment is also on many workers' minds. Recent efforts to unionize at Starbucks Corp. and sandwich chain Jimmy John's have failed.
(Reporting by Phil Wahba and Roy Strom, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)
Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.