Breaking the Chains: Can Labor Unions Organize Retail Workers?

Seth Kershner January 6, 2017

The drumbeat of anti-unionism typically begins as soon as new employees begin their training. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Retail is the nation’s largest employ­er. Since 1980, the num­ber of jobs in retail has report­ed­ly grown near­ly 50 per­cent, from 10.2 to 15.1 mil­lion. At the same time, real wages for retail work­ers have fall­en by 11 per­cent while on-call sched­ul­ing, invol­un­tary part-time work and clopen­ing” — where work­ers are required to lock up the store late at night and reopen the next morn­ing — have wreaked hav­oc with work­ers’ lives. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the retail sec­tor also has one of the low­est rates of union­iza­tion in the econ­o­my — around the 5 per­cent mark under which unions have vir­tu­al­ly no influence.

It didn’t used to be this way.

Retail had 15 per­cent union den­si­ty in the 1970s, accord­ing to soci­ol­o­gist Peter Ikel­er, with the den­si­ty rate in gro­cery stores sur­pass­ing 31 per­cent at its peak in 1983. But, as with the rest of the labor move­ment, retail union­ism has tak­en a steep fall since the ear­ly 1980s.

How did it go so wrong?

There are a lot of parts to that puz­zle,” says Ikel­er, a soci­ol­o­gist at the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Col­lege at Old West­bury and author of the book, Hard Sell: Work and Resis­tance in Retail Chains.

Ikel­er cites the gen­er­al trend towards de-union­iza­tion of the U.S. work­force and the hol­low­ing out of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act sys­tem through case law and employ­er chal­lenges. But the most impor­tant fac­tor in the fall of retail union­ism, Ikel­er argues, has been employ­er hostility.

The cli­mate for labor orga­niz­ing in retail is pret­ty explic­it­ly neg­a­tive,” Ikel­er says.

In a case Ikel­er describes in his book, the pub­lic was able to get a glimpse of Target’s anti-union strate­gies — includ­ing manda­to­ry film screen­ings and employ­ees threat­ened with dis­missal for talk­ing about the union — dur­ing a high­ly pub­li­cized 2011 cam­paign to keep the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) from orga­niz­ing one of its stores on Long Island. And across the retail indus­try, Tar­get is far from unique.

The drum­beat of anti-union­ism typ­i­cal­ly begins as soon as new employ­ees begin their train­ing. New work­er ori­en­ta­tions at Wal­mart, the nation’s lead­ing retail­er, used to include a video that fea­tured lines like: The truth is unions are busi­ness­es, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness­es that make their mon­ey by con­vinc­ing peo­ple like you and me to give them a part of our pay­checks.” Accord­ing to The Atlantic, labor experts who had exam­ined the entire video after it was leaked to the press found that it con­tained bla­tant untruths in many of the video’s pro-com­pa­ny and anti-union statements.”

Even small­er, region­al chains invest in anti-union pro­pa­gan­da for new hires. Accord­ing to inter­nal doc­u­ments pro­vid­ed to In These Times by an employ­ee of Big Y, the Mass­a­chu­setts-based gro­cer warns new hires about sign­ing a union autho­riza­tion card since the company’s con­tin­ued suc­cess” would be jeop­ar­dized through third par­ty involvement.”

To research his book, Ikel­er inter­viewed work­ers at Macy’s and Tar­get stores in the New York City area. Many report­ed know­ing that man­agers dis­ap­proved of unions. Sev­er­al Tar­get work­ers told Ikel­er they were sure their jobs would be in jeop­ardy if they advo­cat­ed for unions and report­ed that they knew peo­ple who’d been fired for union activity.

When con­tact­ed for com­ment, a Tar­get spokes­woman said that the com­pa­ny believes in solv­ing issues and con­cerns with the help and input of our team.”

At Tar­get we have a long­stand­ing com­mit­ment to our team that we will work togeth­er to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment of mutu­al trust between Tar­get and our team mem­bers,” wrote Mol­ly Snyder.

Unions’ strate­gic missteps

While employ­er resis­tance played the biggest role in the decline of retail union­ism, Ikel­er believes that unions also share part of the blame. Specif­i­cal­ly, he thinks that unions have done a lousy job of keep­ing work­ers engaged.

Ikel­er points out that sur­veys indi­cate that around 13 per­cent of gro­cery store work­ers in the New York City area say they belong to a union. This is in con­trast to the unions them­selves, which say they rep­re­sent a much larg­er share of such work­ers in the Big Apple.

What I think this huge dis­par­i­ty demon­strates,” Ikel­er tells In These Times, is that there are a fair num­ber of work­ers who aren’t aware they’re in a union — it’s just some­thing that comes out of their check every month. Sure, they might be orga­nized in some bureau­crat­ic sense — just not in any mean­ing­ful fight­ing capacity.”

In Ikeler’s view, labor unions need to step up their orga­niz­ing and get back to what unions were in their ear­ly New Deal days: more work­er-based rather these large staff-run, top-heavy enti­ties that give lots of mon­ey to Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates every few years with rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle payback.”

A con­struct that can be challenged

Ikel­er also sees a lot of poten­tial in the work­er cen­ter mod­el. Work­er cen­ters like the Retail Action Project, which Ikel­er has stud­ied exten­sive­ly, give work­ers a place to go to form com­mu­ni­ties, talk about work con­di­tions and plan cam­paigns. Anoth­er clear ben­e­fit is that work­er cen­ters help cul­ti­vate a sense of occu­pa­tion­al iden­ti­ty in a sec­tor of the econ­o­my known for deskilling work­ers in order to make them more eas­i­ly replaceable.

A strong occu­pa­tion­al iden­ti­ty — where work­ers are very com­mit­ted to a craft, to an occu­pa­tion — this has often been a source of col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty and resis­tance,” Ikel­er says. If work­ers see them­selves as part of an occu­pa­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty they may be more like­ly to form orga­ni­za­tions togeth­er and put up col­lec­tive resistance.”

Work­er cen­ters can’t replace unions, but the two types of orga­ni­za­tions can work together.

To see suc­cess,” Ikel­er says, to see large-scale orga­niz­ing and an advance for the low-wage ser­vice sec­tor, we’re going to have to see greater syn­er­gy than we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly seen between work­er cen­ters and nation­al unions that are actu­al­ly will­ing to take risks and use some of their trea­sury by going on strike.”

When asked if he saw any bright spots on the retail scene today, Ikel­er point­ed to a recent vic­to­ry by Stop & Shop work­ers in New Eng­land. After threat­en­ing to strike in Feb­ru­ary, the UFCW nego­ti­at­ed a favor­able con­tract for its 35,000 mem­bers in the region, includ­ing a quick­er route to a $15 hourly wage and a promise from the com­pa­ny to add 480 new full time jobs over the next three years.

The vic­to­ry calls to mind an uplift­ing pas­sage from Hard Sell, where Ikel­er writes that bad” ser­vice jobs are not an unal­ter­able fact of life but a social con­struct that can be challenged.”

Seth Ker­sh­n­er is a writer and researcher whose work has appeared in out­lets such as Rethink­ing Schools, Sojourn­ers, and Boul­der Week­ly. He is the co-author (with Scott Hard­ing) of Counter-Recruit­ment and the Cam­paign to Demil­i­ta­rize Pub­lic Schools (Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2015).
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