Seeking living wages, benefits, Target workers weigh union

Steven Greenhouse / New York Times News Service /

In the world of big-box discounters, Target enjoys a reputation as a model corporate citizen that sells the latest in cheap chic. That’s a sharp contrast to the image of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, which labor unions have pilloried for years, accusing it of providing skimpy wages and benefits and skirting various labor laws.

But the arrows are about to come flying at Target’s famous bull’s-eye logo. The nation’s largest union for retail workers has embarked on its first broad campaign to unionize Target workers.

The union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, is trying to organize 5,000 workers at 27 Target stores in the New York City area. A majority of workers at the Target store in Valley Stream, N.Y., have already signed cards supporting unionization, and a government-supervised election there June 17 will be the first time in more than two decades that Target workers will vote on whether to join a union.

“A lot of people are going to be shocked that Target workers would consider unionizing because of its very good image and because it’s known as such a fantastic philanthropic organization,” said Burt Flickinger, a retailing consultant who has worked on projects for both the union and Target suppliers.

The union decided to focus on Target after employees in Valley Stream, on Long Island, asked for help in unionizing. Echoing long-standing complaints by some Wal-Mart workers, the store’s employees complained that many of them earned too little to support a family or afford health insurance, forcing some to rely on food stamps and Medicaid for their children.

“What we want from Target is simply this: We need a living wage where we can get by,” said Sonia Williams, a logistics employee in Valley Stream who said she earns $11.71 an hour, plus a $1-an-hour night differential.

Target says its wages are competitive and its employees do not need a union.

Too few hours

Interviews with 10 of the store’s employees suggest that an important issue behind the unionization drive is frustration about being assigned too few hours of work, sometimes just one or two days a week.

Retailers are increasingly assigning such short workweeks as they seek to build an extensive roster of workers to fill their ever-changing scheduling needs. But some Target workers say that means they are offered too few hours to qualify for the company’s health plan.

Williams, who receives $200 a month in food stamps to help her and her 18-year-old son, complained that she was often assigned just three days of work each week, down from full time when she started nearly nine years ago.

Jim Rowader, Target’s vice president for employee and labor relations, said the company provided “great benefits, flexible scheduling and great career opportunities for workers in all stages of life.”

He said Target emphasized building trust between managers and employees. “When you talk about bringing a union into that mix, certainly based on the culture we have and the one we’re trying to build, we don’t think a union or any third party will improve on anything,” he said.

Climate for organizing

None of Target’s 1,755 stores in the United States is unionized, nor are any of Wal-Mart’s 4,420 U.S. stores. The union has tried over the last decade to unionize Wal-Marts in Minnesota and Las Vegas and a Target in Minnesota, but fierce antiunion campaigns by the retailers deflated the efforts before they even came to a vote.

Flickinger said unions had been loath to undertake large-scale organizing drives against retailers, like the new one against Target in New York, because of obstacles like high employee turnover, the fear of some workers that they will be fired for supporting a union and the aggressive opposition by many companies toward unionization.

But Flickinger said the recession and retailers’ increasing use of part-time workers had improved the climate for organizing even though union membership had been sliding and unions were on the defensive nationwide.

“Unions feel it might be the best of times for organizing in retail because many workers can’t afford the health benefits and many can’t even afford to shop in the stores where they work,” he said.

Patrick J. O’Neill, the union’s organizing director, said it was vital to try to unionize big-box stores. “Retail is a major employer in our economy,” he said. “If we don’t want the middle class to go away, we’ve got to do something about improving the wages and benefits for retail workers.”

About 12 percent of all U.S. workers are unionized, but just 4.7 percent of retail workers are in unions. Kroger is the retailer with the most unionized workers: 200,000.

Beginning of a battle

While the organizing drive is going full tilt in Valley Stream, the United Food and Commercial Workers has just started reaching out to employees at the other New York-area Targets. It is distributing fliers, asking workers to sign pro-union cards, and lining up support from community groups.

Tashawna Green, a stock clerk in Valley Stream, said a union was needed to help increase her pay, $8 an hour after one year there, and her hours, often six to 17 hours a week.

Green, the mother of a 5-year-old, said she would like to work four or five days a week, but is often assigned two days and then earns just $120 for the week. “It’s very hard to support yourself on that,” she said. “Sometimes I have to borrow money from people. I’m lucky that I’m able to stay with an aunt who understands. I try my best to pay her rent of $200 a month.”

Green said that although many employees were desperate to work more hours, managers ask them whether they have any friends who are looking for jobs. Several workers said they were perplexed that the store hired 13 new workers in recent weeks.

Target defended its compensation and scheduling practices.

“The wages and benefits provided at the store are at or, frankly, above the market for comparable retail jobs, union or nonunion,” Rowader said. He said the store’s overall payroll hours had not declined, although individuals might be working fewer hours.

In campaigning against the union, Target is also distributing fliers. One says: “Like any other failing business the union needs to increase revenue to stay in business. Taking dues from new members is the only way for them to get more money.”