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Continued: Target union vote a test for industry

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 15, 2011 - 5:38 PM

VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. - The Target Corp. flier sporting the famous bullseye logo in the top left corner poses a troubling question for workers who this week will hold the company's first union election in 14 years.

"Will the store close if the union gets in?"

The company answer: "There are no guarantees."

The Valley Stream store performs in the middle of the pack companywide, making its closure unlikely. But it stands alone among the 1,754 Targets: On Friday, its 260 workers will decide whether to join the largest retail union in the country.

The outcome could have ramifications not just for the company but for the industry, organized labor and potentially consumers nationwide, giving organized labor a rare beachhead into big-box retail.

If the union wins, "that's big news," said Chris Tilly, the director of UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. "It shows [unions] have potential that people thought wasn't there."

The tenor of the company's flier was noteworthy to John Budd, a labor relations professor at the University of Minnesota. "It suggests Target is quite nervous," he said.

The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union says it intends to organize other Target stores in the New York area, and the company and the union are already accusing each other of resorting to unfair and illegal tactics.

"I hear threatening and scary stories," said Jim Rowader, Target's vice president of employee and labor relations.

"I knew we were going to get a fight, but not this dirty," countered Sonia Williams, a nine-year Target veteran who supports the union. "Right now I'm on my final warning [before termination]. I guess this is how you are treated for standing up."

Vote no, vote yes

The Target workers in Valley Stream have been getting handouts from the Minneapolis-based retailer, the country's second largest, and sent to mandatory meetings. The message is always the same: Vote no.

At nights they get a different message from colleagues and organizers who come to their houses and apartments, and sometimes their bus stops.

The company says the fight is about the right to work without paying union dues. The union says it's about the right to work more hours than Target currently allows.

Rowader says a fired Target human resources executive started the organizing drive to get back at the company. The union says dozens of workers pushed for an election because too many of them need food stamps to feed their kids.

No one is willing to predict an outcome.

Sitting in her apartment in Far Rockaway, 39-year-old Betsy Wilson says she believes the vote will be close. A single mother, Wilson works 32 hours a week for $10.50 per hour, trying to support herself and two children on $17,500 a year. Her apartment has little furniture and few amenities. Yet Wilson opposes the union.

"This is retail," Wilson said. "We all know retail hours go up and down. That was told to us when we got hired. I talked to the union. They said they could guarantee this and guarantee that. They can't guarantee anything except that we pay dues."

Averil Bracey, 54, says she will gladly pay those dues because she believes a union can get her more work. "I get two or three days a week," Bracey said. "I would like to work more. But they keep bringing in new people."

Bright store, poor workers?

The retail industry has been among the hardest for unions to organize because of its transient workforce.

"It is very, very significant that they got the requisite number of people to sign union cards [forcing an election]," said Georgetown labor relations Prof. Douglas McCabe.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requires that 30 percent of affected workers express interest in unionizing before scheduling an election. UCFW Local 1500, which hopes to represent the Valley Stream workers, said it passed that threshold early on.

"We don't file with [only] 30 percent," said Patrick Purcell, a spokesman for UFCW Local 1500. "When you're going to run an election, you're going to need a majority."

Purcell wouldn't predict whether the union will prevail Friday. But he insisted that Target workers did more to initiate the Valley Stream campaign than the UFCW, which has spent more of its time and money trying to organize the country's largest retailer, Wal-Mart.

Purcell added that no matter what happens with Valley Stream, the UFCW will look to organize several of the other 69 Target stores in the New York metro area, especially ones that receive tax breaks which, the union argues, are more accountable to the public.

In Long Island's Nassau County, where the Valley Stream store is located, the union has called on local politicians to pressure Target.

Two weeks ago, at a fundraiser at UFCW 1500 headquarters, Aly Waddy, the local's director of special projects, introduced Williams, Bracey and a third Target employee, 21-year-old Tashawna Green, to the crowd.

"Target has a great image of being bright and happy," Waddy told the 150 people in attendance. "But many of their employees are on public assistance and food stamps."

Dispute over hours

Rowader, the Target executive, argued during an interview that the union would "drive a wedge between the company and employees. ... We would have to do everything through the union."

He disputes the accusation that the company limits the number of hours employees can work to contain costs. "We don't hire people for five to 10 hours a week," Rowader said. "The claim that people want to work more but can't is simply not true."

Williams, Bracey and Green said they are routinely scheduled to work fewer hours than they requested. Green said she was given 5.75 hours during one recent week, nowhere near enough to support herself and her 6-year-old daughter.

The trio of workers are among the Target employees who have taken the union's case to the streets of Queens and Long Island, where many Valley Stream Target workers live. Using names and addresses provided by the NLRB, the employees and union representatives knock on colleagues' doors and try to persuade them to vote for the union.

The home visits are legal, but Rowader says store officials have heard from employees who feel harassed, a charge union supporters deny. The process appears more hit-and-miss than harassment. On a recent night, a crew of union supporters drove 20 minutes to a home, only to find that the person they hoped to talk to wasn't there.

Purcell says the union will give up home visits if Target will give the union access to workers at the store. Rowader said that won't happen.

The UFCW recently filed 10 unfair labor practice claims against Target with the NLRB that could form the basis of a protest in the event of a loss.

But for employees like Sonia Williams, who believes she put her career on the line to get a union, the moment is now.

"If we don't win," she said, "we don't have a job."

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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