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The sidewalk was jammed with people in front of the new H&M store on Michigan Avenue just after noon last Friday. Some had waited since 10:15 in a line that snaked around the block to get into the Swedish chain’s newest store on opening day. The downtown location will serve as the midwest flagship of H&M, known for stocking trendy clothes at impossibly low prices.

Two men in black suits controlled the flow of shoppers entering and exiting the store. A pair of unfashionably dressed cops kept people on the sidewalk and out of the bus lane.

“Oh my God, that was a bad idea,” said a woman to her companion as they left H&M, white bags in hand, and ducked into the adjacent Filene’s Basement.

A couple hundred students, activists, and members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) in red union shirts and caps, waved signs that said ABUSE IS IN STYLE AT H&M and tried to shout, “What is outrageous? Sweatshop wages!” over a pair of speakers blaring dance music mixed live by B96 DJ Julian “Jumpin'” Perez.

“Are they celebrating this store?” a woman in a sari asked, gesturing toward the sign wavers. A couple of union guys standing in front of the store cupped their hands around their mouths and yelled something unintelligible. A few feet away, enthusiastic H&M employees in artfully cut-up black company T-shirts that said CHICAGO 060 formed two lines, creating a clapping, dancing gauntlet for shoppers on their way in.

The 56-year-old H&M–it stands for Hennes & Mauritz–has some 900 stores in 17 countries, and raked in about $5 billion last year. The company keeps prices low by buying fabric in bulk, employing house designers who copy the latest fashions, and manufacturing the clothes in eastern Europe and southeast Asia. Chicago’s is its 60th U.S. store and the first in the midwest–which is why it was chosen as the first target for UNITE’s “season of protest.”

UNITE’s placards featured a large photo of New Jersey distribution center employee Deyanire Bautista, who says she’s been seriously injured on the job three times in the past year. UNITE claims the retailer is union friendly in Europe but launched an antiunion campaign at the New Jersey center, whose 200 workers are primarily Latina immigrants, in July. Earlier this month UNITE filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that H&M violated the right of employees to discuss joining the union with their co-workers.

“The New Jersey warehouse is unsafe,” said a woman wearing a sticker that read ASK ME WHAT’S WRONG WITH H&M. “If people do purchase things, we ask that when they get to the register they ask why they’re not letting workers organize,” she said. Earlier she and a group of cohorts had waited in line, gotten into the store, pulled on their UNITE shirts, and taken their case to some of H&M’s PR people–who “said it was a great place to work” and referred the protesters to the company’s code of conduct on its Web site. “We do not interfere with the employees’ right to choose,” H&M spokesperson Karen Belva said later. “We respect each employee’s right to become a member of the union.”

“The company has a code of conduct that says it allows workers to organize freely and that they don’t use sweatshops,” responds UNITE spokesperson Scott Zdrazil. “But through worker interviews and direct observation in New Jersey, Indonesia, and Thailand we learned that’s not the case. There’s direct evidence that contradicts what H&M is saying in their corporate code of conduct. We’re asking them to implement that code.”

By way of evidence UNITE cites testimony from workers at the New Jersey center.

By 12:45 the line was moving faster, so I joined it around the corner, halfway down Chestnut. People handed out mini bottles of Vitamin Water and Killer Bee stickers. A bouncer explained that the wait was now about 20 to 30 minutes to a blond woman, who rolled her eyes.

Both the protesters and the music seemed to have gotten louder. The speakers blasted Cajmere’s 1996 dance hit “It’s Time for the (Percolator)” and the protesters changed their tune from a tired “hey-hey, ho-ho” to a more energetic “No justice, no peace.” The signs bounced up and down to the beat.

By the time I got through the now-lethargic gauntlet, the racks were picked over and the place was crowded, but there was still a lot left–particularly if you were petite or partial to the dung palette. “Do you think this is too slutty?” asked a woman dangling a handkerchief-size brown skirt in front of her male companion’s face. He didn’t answer.

I looked at some miniskirts. The one from China was a lot cuter (and less slutty) than the one from Thailand. Did I dare?

I did.

“Is that all you’re getting?” the cashier asked when I finally made it to the front of the checkout line about 10 minutes later. Next to me, a woman asked what time the store closed (eight on weeknights) and when they were going to open a store at Woodfield (September 26). Perez gave away Killer Bee T-shirts–which looked a lot like the shirts the UNITE protesters were wearing–to people who’d spent more than $100 and proclaimed that H&M had the best-looking employees in the state.

As I left the store, I tucked my shopping bag inside my messenger bag. The protesters were dancing and making siren sounds. People still waiting to get in looked at them, and then at the stuff in the windows (guitar tank top, $14.90, drawstring bottom pants, $49). Some were reading yellow flyers that asked “W_at’s _issing at H&M?” (“Respect. Safe working conditions. Affordable health insurance. Fair treatment. Paychecks that meet basic needs.”) No one left the queue.

The sky darkened as Madonna’s “Holiday” played, and the line moved more briskly. Near the Water Tower a couple dozen protesters boarded an old school bus. A skinny woman with dark lipstick walked by, holding a crumpled yellow flyer away from her body like it was a bag of turds, and headed toward the end of the line.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cara Jepsen.