The target is now Target.
Though even the prospect of Walmart laying stake to ground in the city has elicited howls from organized labor and its allies in government, fellow big-box retailer Target has managed to establish a firm foothold in the city without so much as a peep of opposition.
Late last week, however, the 23,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 filed for a union election at a Target store in Valley Stream, L.I., a stone’s throw from Queens. It was the opening salvo in what Local 1500 officials say will be an aggressive, extended campaign to organize workers at 27 Target stores in the New York area, including its 10 stores in the five boroughs. Union staff, who have been meeting with Target employees for two months, say the recent attention on Walmart’s labor practices prompted the workers to come forward to organize for higher wages and better hours.
“They looked at it and said, ‘Maybe my company doesn’t have a 1.5 million-women sex discrimination lawsuit, but, hey, we have issues too,’ ” said Pat Purcell, assistant to the president of Local 1500, referring to a class action against Walmart. “Whatever free ride Target has gotten to this point is over.”
Mr. Purcell added that wages and distribution of hours are the main complaints, with workers reporting 8-cent raises and workweeks of as few as five hours.
“We have pride in our company, but we just don’t feel they have pride in us,” said Sonia Williams, of Jamaica, Queens, an overnight clerk at the Valley Stream store, in a statement provided by the union. “We believe the time for change has come for Target.”
A spokeswoman for the company declined an interview request but issued a statement to Crain’s. “Target’s emphasis is on creating an environment of mutual trust between Target and our team members—an environment that promotes listening, responding to concerns of team members and always giving honest feedback,” the statement said. “We want to continue to create the kind of workplace where team members don’t want or need union representation to resolve issues.”
Target has three stores in Brooklyn, three in Queens, two in the Bronx, one in Manhattan and one on Staten Island. None of its 1,755 stores nationwide are unionized.
In addition to responding to employee complaints, Local 1500 has an urgent need to organize the estimated 7,000 workers at area Target stores. In the past year, the retailer has pushed to increase its food operations, a move that could erode the market share of unionized grocers such as ShopRite, Waldbaum’s and Pathmark. Target sent glossy brochures promoting its expanded grocery sections to city residents and offered shoppers free bread and eggs. Higher food sales are a reason the retailer expects to increase annual revenues from $66 billion to more than $100 billion as early as 2016.
“We have to organize Target stores, or we’ll soon be irrelevant,” said Bernie Hesse, political director of UFCW Local 1189 in Minnesota, Target’s home state. The union recently decided to renew a campaign against Target that fizzled several years ago in the face of opposition from the company, Mr. Hesse said.
A campaign against Target also neutralizes Walmart’s argument that it is being unfairly singled out as a nonunion mass-market retailer. Walmart declined to comment.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity to organize Target workers because of their low wages and limited hours,” said Burt Flickinger, managing partner of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group.
The union faces challenges on several fronts. Locals around the country have made only tepid efforts to engage Target workers, as their focus has been on Walmart. Additionally, retail workers are notoriously difficult to organize, both because of high turnover and employers’ vigorous counterefforts.
And Mr. Purcell said Target workers have told organizers that they were shown an extended video that told them to “think hard before you sign any card or petition.” The video, standard fare for shops looking to keep out unions, referred to dues, telling the workers that “no team member has ever had to pay one nickel of their paycheck to a union to get fair treatment from Target.”
The company has thus far avoided the scrutiny that its much-larger competitor has come under, even though analysts say the two pay about the same wages. Target has built a squeaky-clean public image, partly by donating millions to local charities and sponsoring cultural events—and partly by not being Walmart.
The domino effect
Target’s response to the union campaign—regardless of who wins—will have several repercussions in labor’s bigger battle: Walmart. If Target’s pushback is moderate, Walmart could feel pressure to soften its stance. If, however, Target gets tough with workers, it could find itself in Walmart’s boat, with once-friendly politicians teaming up with labor to stop more stores from opening.
“If they do a slash-and-burn campaign, they lower their profile in terms of respectability,” said Ed Ott, a labor lecturer at the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute. “It’s a test of whether Target is fundamentally any different than Walmart.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2011 print issue of Crain’s New York Business.