New York Target Store Workers Reject Unionization

Workers at a Target store in New York voted against joining the country's largest retail union Friday night, but the union said it would press on and broaden its push to represent the company's workers nationwide.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500 also said it would contest the results and ask the federal government to order a new election, alleging that Target illegally intimidated workers. Target denied the union's allegations.

Both sides said the workers at Target's Valley Stream store voted 137-85 against unionization. A "yes" vote would have made the store the first of the company's 1,700 locations to bring in organized labor.

"Target did everything they could to deny these workers a chance at the American Dream," said Bruce W. Both, president of United and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500, in a statement. "However, the workers' pursuit of a better life and the ability to house and feed their families is proving more powerful. These workers are not backing down from this fight. They are demanding another election."

Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said the company acted legally.

"Target absolutely believes we have followed all the policies and procedures that are outlined by the National Labor Relations Board in a completely lawful manner," Snyder said.

In response to the vote, the union planned to begin a campaign called "Target: Democracy" at the company's other 26 stores in the New York area and will begin coordinating a nationwide campaign with other union locals in major U.S. cities.

"Today is merely the end of the first found of what will undoubtedly be a 12-round fight for fairness, democracy, justice and change for all Target workers," Both said.

Since two-dozen workers from the Valley Stream store approached the union with their grievances regarding hours and pay in February, Target employees from around the country have been reaching out to the labor organization, according to Patrick Purcell, spokesman for the UFCW. The union consists of mostly grocery workers, but also represents employees at retailers that include clothier H&M.

The vote comes at a time when union membership in the retail industry has waned. In 1983, 1.2 million retail workers were union members. Today, that number is 703,000, with more than half of those workers in grocery stores, according to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

At the same time, the quality of retail jobs has fallen. The median hourly wage for retail salespeople has dropped 3 percent since 2006 after adjusting for inflation. And shrinking hours for many workers make it hard to earn a living wage or qualify for benefits.

"Workers are seeing their hours getting cut and their take-home pay, while basic costs for gas and food are soaring," says Burt Flickinger III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. "They're increasingly frustrated."

Workers at the store in Valley Stream are upset about hourly wage increases amounting to eight cents or less, says Patrick Purcell, the union spokesman. Some employees also say their hours have been cut from 30 per week to fewer than 10. Part-timers must bank at least 20 hours a week, on average, to qualify for benefits. A Target spokeswoman says hourly workers at the Valley Stream store average 24 hours a week

Chairman Brown, who's worked at Target for six years, supports the effort to organize. "I feel like if we get a union it would be better because we'd have a voice, somebody to stand up for us," he says.

Betsy Wilson, a single mom of two who works about 21 hours a week at Target, disagrees. "What do I need a union to fight for me for?" she says.

Other retail workers also are putting up a fight. A new group called the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, partly funded by the UFCW, coordinated a small protest at the company's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters Thursday. And a union representing 4,000 Macy's workers in New York, including those at the flagship store, authorized a strike on Monday when the department store tried to get concessions on wages, benefits and hours. A tentative agreement was reached on Thursday.

"We haven't seen such unrest in organized labor (in the retail sector) since the 1970s," Flickinger says.

Much of that unrest has been focused on Target's competitor, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Over the past decade, the UFCW has failed several times to unionize Wal-Mart stores. In 2004, the company shuttered a Canadian store after it became the first in North America to win union certification. In 2000, 11 workers in the meatpacking department at a store in Jacksonville, Tex., voted to join the UFCW. Soon after, Wal-Mart began stocking only pre-wrapped meats, effectively eliminating the positions.

Don Schroeder, a Mintz Levin labor attorney who has represented corporations in similar battles for 18 years, said Target has been successful at defeating union election petitions in the past, even in union strongholds like Detroit. Unions generally don't file a petition unless they feel they have the vote firmed up, but with a high-profile company like Target, he says, labor may be willing to take a chance.

"They know if they win one, it could be a domino effect," he says.