Labor thinks big-box with Target union effort

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2011 - 7:05 AM

The attempt to unionize a single store is being watched as a potential crack to open large retailers.

A single Target store tucked away in a New York City suburb has captured the attention of organized labor and big retail.

Roughly 260 employees at the Target in Valley Stream, N.Y., are expected to decide later this month whether they will unionize, the first step in an effort to organize 5,000 Target workers in the New York City area.

The initiative is being coordinated by the largest union of retail workers in the country, and the Valley Stream vote, set for June 17, is viewed as a critical juncture. If the union wins, the Target store would become the first of its 1,755 stores to organize, no small feat in the world of big-box retail, say labor experts.

"Once a company has a legally organized union, that union becomes a co-manager with the company over wages, hours and working conditions," said Douglas McCabe, a labor relations professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

Targeting Target represents something of a surprise.

Unions have traditionally focused their criticisms against Wal-Mart, accusing the world's No. 1 retailer of paying low salaries, offering meager benefits and violating various labor laws. But now Target, long known for its corporate philanthropy, is getting hit with similar claims. Some experts think that retail strategies in the hyper-competitive, price-driven sector will inspire more organizing efforts, particularly if the Valley Stream effort prevails.

For big retail, that could mean a new way of thinking for retail companies that rely heavily on low-wage, part-time workers to keep stores open for long hours on tight personnel budgets, said Francoise Carre, director of research at the University of Massachusetts Boston's Center for Social Policy.

Best Buy electronics and Supervalu grocery stores, two other giant retailers based in Minnesota, declined to comment about the effort to organize Target workers. Carre believes they are definitely paying attention.

"They should be watching," she said. "And I'm sure they are."

Target officials dismiss the notion that the Valley Stream vote could be a pivotal moment for organized labor's efforts to organize retail workers. Target workers don't need to unionize because it already offers competitive wages and benefits, the company said.

"We do not believe the Valley Stream situation has implications for the retail industry as a whole," Target said in a statement. "We remain focused on supporting our Valley Stream team members and providing them with accurate information."

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group the includes Target, also downplays the possibility that a single union election could drive broader changes within the retail sector. But the association, whose members include many of the country's biggest retailers, clearly prefers that the initiative fail in Valley Stream.

"The often complex and inflexible work rules associated with union environments can increase costs and negatively affect the consumer experience," said Katherine Lugar, the retail association's vice president for public affairs.

Even if the Target workers approve a union in Valley Stream, building any sort of momentum will be a daunting task, experts say. Union representation of the private-sector workforce has been declining for decades, now at just 7 percent. McCabe says unions are desperate for an infusion of new members, but organizing such service industries as retail has proven difficult because the workforce is so transient.

A union victory at Target would show that the American labor movement has "potential that people thought wasn't there," said Chris Tilly, director of UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. It also would send a "strong signal" that retailers must consider changing the way they routinely do business, Tilly added.

The last union election Target faced was at a warehouse in Georgia in 1997. Workers voted against unionization. A few years later, the National Labor Relations Board scheduled a union election at a Target store in Salinas, Calif. But the union withdrew from the election three days before it took place, a sign that it knew it would lose.

Union officials in New York said they have no intention of backing down. Target's Valley Stream employees are seeking representation by the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (IFCW) because of restrictions on work hours, union officials said. Many employees are not allowed to work full-time hours, so that they can better support their families and garner such benefits as health insurance, the IFCW claims.

Target's vice president for labor relations, Jim Rowader, denies the charge. "Our intent is to get you as many hours as we can if you want to work," he said in an interview.

Turnover is a cost of business

Across the retail industry, "decreasing hours and cutting compensation" have become the standard for controlling costs, Tilly and Carre concluded in a research paper about company strategies for balancing sales and labor costs. The study, which didn't include Target, found that high turnover has become an acceptable cost of doing business for retailers.

"Low wages, unpredictable hours and poor benefits are hallmarks of retail jobs," the researchers concluded.

In addition, the retail industry relies more on part-time workers than other industries. A 2008 Ford Foundation study showed that 28 percent of retail employees work part time, compared with 19 percent in all industries.

Retailers say their employment strategy is accommodating workers' needs, not denying them more earnings and benefits. "We consistently find that among retail employees, flexibility is the attribute that they most enjoy," said Lugar, of the retail association. "The retail industry is a historically high turnover industry because for many employees it is their first job, their last job or a second income."

Patrick Purcell, a spokesman with the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1500, called Lugar's characterization outdated, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. "We've lost a lot of high-paying jobs," said Purcell, whose local hopes to represent workers in the Valley Stream Target. "Every community has to replace those jobs, and one of the biggest places to replace them is in retail."

The battle by employees to work full time instead of part time might create public support when they try to unionize.

"It's hard to portray people who want to work more than 10 hours a week as lazy and greedy," said John Budd, a labor studies specialist at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "The retail industry will need to sit up and take notice."

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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