The retail giant Target is under fire from all sides, for union-busting at home and labor violations overseas. The reports that have come out in the past several weeks highlight a continuum of cruelty in the global supply chain.
Though WalMart has long served as labor’s arch nemesis, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has lately zeroed in on Target as a new battlefield—with its hundreds of thousands of employees and recent expansion into the supermarket sector. Although UFCW Local 1500 recently lost a vote to unionize a branch in Valley Stream, New York, their campaign deftly exposed Target’s arsenal of intimidation and smear tactics, which ranged from anti-union websites to leaflets warning that a yes vote might ruin the company and force the store to close.
Target’s honeymoon is over, the national attention from the election at Valley Stream showed the American public the type of company they really are, one who has little respect for the hard working people who make their company so successful. Target still has the opportunity to change, and they should start by respecting their employees.
UFCW still aims to unionize all Target stores in the New York area, the AP reported in July. And Target’s “victory” over UFCW ironically has become an inspiration for organizers (reflecting perhaps labor’s desperate state as well as yearning for fresh motivation):
And the UFCW’s local 1189 in St. Paul, Minn., is using the New York election as an impetus to recharge its campaign, which failed a couple of years because it didn’t collect enough votes. The chapter is organizing a group of people to go door- to-door to almost 2,000 Target workers in four stores. It’s also planning to reach out to UFCW’s local Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle chapters to enlist them to join the battle.
“I was inspired. Once we heard that Local 1500 had been building toward an election, we thought we better ramp it up,” said Bernie Hesse, director of special projects at UFCW’S St. Paul chapter. “We have been intrigued with what a national campaign may look like.”
But despite the grassroots push, Target remains shielded by a pro-business NLRB bureaucracy, argues Pete Ikeler at SocialistAlternative.org:
This was not the first time an allegedly “free and fair” National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election at a big-box retail store has gone the way employers wanted it to. Several single-store organizing drives have been run at outlets such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart — most of which similarly failed. …
The initial failure of the single-store drive in Valley Stream, NY, displays yet again the depth of employers’ class-based anti-unionism and the completely employer-biased character of the NLRB system. This organizing drive also exposes the centrality of retail and other low-wage service work to the profound crisis in wages and living standards facing the U.S. working class today.
The corporate bias embedded in the NLRB system, Ikeler says, has cowed unions onto the “institutional path to unionization” which emphasizes labor-management “partnership.” Only militant organizing strategy can beat back the corporate phalanx:
If Local 1500 is serious about organizing Target workers, the next phase of struggle — which has already begun, by its own account — will be a longer-term process of building consciousness and solidarity among workers at various Target stores in the area, as well as building links with other unions and community allies, including Target shoppers. Achieving recognition and a union contract may well require direct action — strike, boycott, or both — to push past the soul-draining deadlock of the NLRB “process.”
UFCW has initiated a formal NLRB review and now hopes to get a new vote following an enactment of proposed reforms that purport to make NLRB elections fairer and more efficient. That might make Target a testing ground for whether workers can really gain ground under the new procedures.
Meanwhile, far from the Valley Stream suburbs, the Big Box profit model takes an even more devastating (and hidden) toll on factory workers in “emerging” economies.
The U.S.-based advocacy group China Labor Watch implicated Target in a scathing new report on Chinese manufacturing plants tied to major U.S. chains. The group said excessive work hours, poor sanitation and possibly child labor plague a Target-affiliated plant in Dongguan. In a formal email response to China Labor Watch (later released by the group), Target said it was “taking these claims very seriously” and “reexamining [the company’s] recent audit of the Dongguan factory.”
Another recent investigation by the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights, alleged major abuses at the Jordan-based manufacturer Classic Brands, which churns out clothing for Target, WalMart and Macy’s. The Institute reported that workers, mostly migrants from South Asia, were subjected to sexual abuse along with wage theft and prison-like living conditions. The organization called on Target and other companies not to “cut and run, which would only further punish the workers,” but rather “take immediate and concrete steps to clean up the Classic factories and guarantee that the legal rights of the workers will finally be respected.” Here, too, reported Huffington Post, Target said it was “taking these claims seriously.”
These workers’ struggles may seem worlds away from the labor battles at U.S. Target outlets. But store employees fighting to unionize should know they aren’t just defending their local communities from a Big Box empire; they’ve fired a tiny opening shot on a global industrial battlefront.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.