Stage set for tense union vote at N.Y. Target

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2011 - 3:59 PM

Accusations are flying on and off the Web. A victory for the UFCW could open the way for organizing efforts at other big retailers.

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United Food & Commercial Workers rep Brendan Sexton, director of special projects Aly Waddy and Target employees Tashawna Green and Sonia Williams made house calls in a New York suburb this month about the union vote.

Photo: Melanie Burford, NPR

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Amid recriminations and tension, workers at a Target store in a New York City suburb will decide Friday whether to establish the mega-retailer's first unionized outlet.

In the days leading up to the vote, Target officials have accused the union of racial and anti-gay slurs and other verbal abuse. The union, in turn, said the company threatened to close a store and fire union supporters. The jousting has been ongoing across the Internet as well. A new Target website attacks labor organizers, while an old video has been posted online showing Target management spewing anti-union propaganda.

Theatrics aside, big-box retailers and labor relations experts across the country are watching carefully. If 265 Target workers in Valley Stream, N.Y., choose to be represented by the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), it could signal a shift in the country's current antiunion climate and open the way for organizing efforts at other Target stores and large retail chains.

The election turns primarily on the issues of limited working hours and low pay for retail employees, a situation that scholars say dominates the entire industry, not just Target. Chris Tilly, director of UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, called it "a hard atmosphere for union organizing."

Election results are not expected until around midnight, and employees on both sides of the union question have said they expect a close margin. Target will provide bus service for workers who are not working to come to the store to cast their vote.

"Target believes it is important that all eligible team members have the opportunity to place their vote in the secret ballot," the company said in a statement Thursday.

Meanwhile, each side has filed legal complaints against the other with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Target accused the union and its supporters of making "racial" and "antigay" statements, threatening other employees during phone calls and home visits and verbally abusing members of management as they entered or left the store.

The UFCW accused Target of threatening to close the store if the union succeeded in organizing its workers.

The union also said the company lacked legitimate grounds to issue a final warning before termination to an employee who spoke in support of the union to co-workers.

In addition, a recently created Target website aimed specifically at employees of the Valley Stream store labeled legal visits to employees' home by union supporters "high pressure tactics." Federal law requires Target to supply the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the union with employee names and addresses of those affected by the election.

"The union will no doubt use the list to continue to bother you at your home or call you," the website said. The company suggested that the union might use employees' personal information in a "negative" way.

A spokesman for UFCW Local 1500, which hopes to represent the Valley Stream Target workers, countered that Target will not let union supporters speak to employees at work, but has forced all workers to attend mandatory meetings at which management criticizes the union.

An antiunion video produced by Target was leaked to the Gawker website earlier this week and now appears on Facebook. The 13-minute video shows two actors dressed as Target workers explaining that unions collect dues to protect unions, not workers. The video claims union rules would not even allow employees to talk to certain customers. Target's vice president for labor relations, Jim Rowader, appears in the video. He tells employees that unions are third parties that "try to divide us."

A Target spokeswoman said the video has not been used "for years." She said it was not shown to employees in Valley Stream.

Fourth attempt to organize

Target has withstood four union organizing attempts since 1990. That year, workers voted down a union at a Target store near Detroit. In 1995, Target warehouse workers in Pueblo, Colo., rejected unionization. Target warehouse workers in Tifton, Ga., followed suit in 1997, turning down union representation.

A few years later, a Target store in Salinas, Calif. scheduled a vote to organize, but the union called off the election three days before it was scheduled to take place, presumably because it thought it would lose.

Earlier this week, UFCW Local 1500 said Friday's election would go on "despite a campaign of fear, intimidation and threats to close the store ."

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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