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Anti-Union Life at Target

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) suffered a rough blow this past Friday when they lost a unionization vote at a Target store on New York’s Long Island. Had the union won, the store would have been the first of more than 1,700 Targets across the country to be organized. As it is, Target, like WalMart, will remain entirely union-free.

[Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.]

According to the New York Times coverage:

In a statement, the president of U.F.C.W. Local 1500, Bruce W. Both, said that the workers at the Valley Stream store had endured a “campaign of threats, intimidation and illegal acts by Target management.” As a result, he called on the National Labor Relations Board to direct a new election and order Target to cease its “illegal activity.”
“Target did everything they could to deny these workers a chance at the American dream,” said Mr. Both, of the union local.
The union filed a complaint with the labor board last month asserting that Target had unlawfully prohibited employees from wearing pro-union buttons and from discussing working conditions on online sites. It also said Target had unlawfully threatened employees with dismissal if they spoke about the union.

In meetings and fliers, Target officials told employees that a union could not guarantee better pay or benefits and that the organization only wanted their dues. In a move that worried numerous workers, the company said there were no guarantees that the store would remain open if the workers unionized.

Target, of course, denies that it did anything wrong. Its position is that this unionization drive—like all previous notions by employees of bringing a union to any of their stores—has failed because the company is one big, happy family. As spokesperson Molly Snyder put it in the Times article, “We believe in solving issues and concerns by working together with the help and input of all team members. Our team has embraced that philosophy by rejecting union representation.”

You can believe that. Or you can believe that the chain employs the same intimidation tactics as other big employers. Scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner has long been at the forefront of documenting the statistics. A report she authored in 2009 found:

It has become standard practice for workers to be subjected by corporations to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for supporting a union. An analysis of the 1999-2003 data on NLRB election campaigns finds that:

-- 63% of employers interrogate workers in mandatory one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union;
-- 54% of employers threaten workers in such meetings;
-- 57% of employers threaten to close the worksite;
-- 47% of employers threaten to cut wages and benefits; and
-- 34% of employers fire workers.

Plenty of their actions are illegal. But corporations learned long ago that it was less costly for them wantonly to violate labor law up front and suffer the slap on the wrist later than to allow employees freely to vote their will.

You can catch a glimpse of propaganda used by Target on workers in mandatory “captive audience” meetings thanks to the website Gawker. Although the site is generally known for celebrity gossip rather than hard-hitting labor coverage, editor Hamilton Nolan has done a commendable job of publicizing Target workers’ concerns. Prior to the vote, Gawker made public this video:

Salon subsequently reported that, ironically enough, the actors in the anti-union video are themselves union members, represented by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). Ric Reitz (who plays Target spokesman “Doug” in the video, and who is currently featured as the President of the United States in The Green Lantern) told Salon’s Justin Elliott that it was “very awkward” but that he went through with it anyway:
“If someone hires me to play a rapist, does it make me a rapist? You take the job, and you’re an actor,” says Reitz, a longtime member of AFTRA and the Screen Actors Guild. “Am I pro-union? Absolutely.”

I don’t know, Ric. I’m glad you’re pro-union, and I sympathize with you on the “an artist has got to work” front. But, as a friend of mine pointed out, playing a rapist is one thing; playing one in a video designed to promote sexual assault would be something else entirely. It looks like you botched the call on this one.

In any case, videos like the one screened by Target are a pretty standard part of corporate America’s ongoing and often-preemptive campaigns against unions, and they are the sort of thing that soul-sold-to-devil consulting firms like Jackson Lewis can help you to produce. I was hoping to compare the relative cinematic merits of the Target video with a similar film that was made by the Home Depot and leaked in April. Unfortunately, it appears that Home Depot got its copyright team into gear pretty swiftly; the video is now off-line.

To my mind, Gawker’s greatest contribution was not posting the Target video. It was gathering and publishing two consecutive days worth of testimonials from current and former Target workers. The type of stories they tell will be familiar to most who have worked in retail. But the stories nevertheless shed light on realities of working life in America rarely given any attention in the media:

A young man’s Target experience:

I worked at Target for about 5 years (16-21). I can corroborate a lot of the stories that have already been posted—I made about $.50 more when I left than when I was hired. I was hired at $.50 over minimum wage, although I was told for most starting wage is $.25 over minimum wage.

In the state I worked in, hourly limits on underage workers were limited to days that school was in session. So Sunday-Thursday during the school year, Target was required to let me out at 9:00pm. But on weekends and during school breaks (including Christmas, of course!) we worked as late as was deemed necessary (the week after I turned 18 the law was changed so that underage workers could not be kept past 9:00pm at any time. My store immediately stopped hiring underage workers.). I worked from 4:00pm - 2:00am on a regular basis, and often was scheduled to open the next day. My state also regulated that there had to be 8 hours between shifts, so any time we worked past midnight we were instructed to come in 8 hours later rather than the shift start time. Given a 30 minute drive to and from Target and time to bathe/dress, I did not actually get 8 hours rest. My record shift was 4:00pm - 4:00am, the night before public school started (I was a freshman in college at this point and worked a second job during the day).

The real kicker is that working all of these 10-12 hour shifts didn’t mean more money. As soon as you were in danger of receiving overtime, your remaining shifts for the week were cut. Occasionally the managers would try to call in people who were scheduled for the day off and under 40 hours, but generally people refused the offer and those left working the shift were stuck doing the extra work. This ALONE is a good argument for a union.


From a young woman whose first job is at Target:

I would like to go to college, but I honestly cannot afford it because I need to work as much as possible to just make ends meet. I actually earn about 50 cents more than most of my coworkers, but there are still some months that I wonder how to pay rent. Sure, I could get a second job, and I try to, but there are simply no jobs open. I think a union would make sense, because at least then we have some hope of having a say. Currently, we honestly get shit hours, benefits are minimal and expensive, and reviews are a joke. We stay until all hours of the night to get things done, and we get acknowledged with just a great team card. I like the people at my job just fine, but the minimal hours, shitty pay, and the mindset that we should just deal grates on me. To reiterate, I am young—but I still need enough money to live, and this kind of job is the only one I can hold until I gain the skills I need to survive elsewhere. If a union can make Target into a place with an awesome environment AND at least passable pay and benefits, I am all for at least giving it a try, and maybe then I can actually afford college without spiraling into lifelong debt. Just because it’s a retail job does not give it a pass for being a shitty job. I also apologize if this email doesn’t make much sense—I’m not a very eloquent person.

Gawker also published some interesting letters from disgruntled managers. And, on the plus side for the company, Gawker received some letters from employees who didn’t think their Target jobs were all that bad. But it’s impossible to read through the postings and conclude that a corporate philosophy valuing the “help and input of all team members” is honestly what has kept unions out of the stores.

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