Organized labor has never had a presence at downtown Los Angeles clothing maker American Apparel Inc., but a new union push could be the next thorny issue for the company.

Nativo Lopez, a senior advisor with Hermandad Mexicana, a Santa Ana non-profit that advocates for immigrants’ rights, said American Apparel employees are taking the first steps to unionize. The organization and some company employees have already created a group, called the Coalition of American Apparel Factory Workers United to Save American Apparel, and now workers are circulating cards that employees can sign to indicate their support for unionization.

Cards have been passed out to roughly 4,500 employees, Lopez said. If about 75 percent of employees sign and return cards, Lopez said workers would then elect delegates who would ask American Apparel management to be recognized as a union. Through Hermandad Mexicana, workers at American apparel have recently complained of cuts to wages and work hours.

Paula Schneider, who took over as American Apparel’s chief executive following the ouster of former chief Dov Charney, told the Business Journal the company is committed to preserve jobs in downtown Los Angeles and globally while continuing to pay fair wages. Schneider also said the company supports its employees’ rights to express their views and is “committed to engaging in an active dialogue with them.”

Employees have been increasingly vocal about changes in the working conditions they say are happening at the apparel maker since Charney was forced out. Over the past two months, employees have been meeting to talk about the alleged changes with help from Hermandad Mexicana and from Charney.

In March, a worker filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging employees have faced harassment and intimidation from security guards for trying to organize. Also in March, the coalition sent a letter to the board of directors outlining their concerns.

“The ‘sweatshop free” business model is in jeopardy of being eliminated given the current rate of deterioration of wages, hours and working conditions,” Lopez wrote on behalf of the employees.

Schneider said the most important thing company management can do for employees is to improve the financial health of American Apparel.

“We are working to save North America’s largest apparel manufacturer, which under its previous leadership incurred losses exceeding $300 million over the last five years,” she said. “We are focused on turning the company around to ensure that our business thrives so that we can provide long-term employment for thousands of people in Los Angeles and throughout the nation.”

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