Racial tension, class warfare, physical assault, deconstructed denim Bermuda shorts. Target has become center stage of the American labor movement's latest drama.
Earlier this month, 21-year-old Tashawna Green was fired from her job at the big-box store in Valley Stream, Long Island. According to Target, Green was dismissed because "she acted in an overly hostile, disruptive manner that is inconsistent with Target's policies." According to Green, she was let go for being pro-union.
The recession has only exacerbated the frustration felt by many rank-and-file Target workers. The world's second largest retailer had been on an upswing, even as its main rival, Wal-Mart, has endured its ninth consecutive quarter of declining same-store sales. As a reward, chief executive Gregg Steinhafel took home $23.9 million in 2010 -- a rosy 83 percent raise on his 2009 earnings.
The wages of most Target employees, on the other hand, have stagnated between $8 and $10 an hour. Those hours have also been cut, according to Patrick Purcell, assistant to the president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1500. Hours were shaved off longtime employees in particular, and given to new hires at lower wages.
"Fulltime at Target isn't 40 hours," Purcell said. "That's why you had a lot of people on food stamps."
Entitlements are also linked to hours worked, he said, so Target could manipulate those hours to ensure employees didn't receive certain benefits.
Back in February, dozens of employees at the Valley Stream store contacted the UFCW hoping for representation. It was the first time in over two decades that Target would face such a vote, and if successful, the store in a Long Island strip mall would become the first unionized outlet of Target's 1,700 nationwide locations.
In preparation for the vote, Target distributed anti-union propaganda in the form of leaflets, videos and public statements. Required to submit the names and addresses of all eligible voters to the National Labor Relations Board, Target warned its employees, "The union will no doubt use the list to continue to bother you at your home or call you." Protect yourself and your family, it cautioned, from "these union salespeople and their high-pressure tactics."
Another pamphlet threatened that unionization might mean the loss of all their jobs. "The union has a terrible record of store closings," it read. "We all owe our jobs to the closing of the unionized Caldor store that was in our building."
In mid-June, the union was rejected 137 to 85. Many union advocates believed Target's intimidation was to blame. "Target won through fear," Sonia Williams, a Target employee, told The Huffington Post.
The UFCW filed multiple complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the company engaged in threats, interrogation and surveillance.
Target denies any wrongdoing and insists that the majority of employees didn't want the union, with its dues and bureaucracy. "Target's environment promotes listening, responding to concerns of team members and always giving honest feedback," the company said in a press release. The store had a productive dynamic with its employees, they claimed, and so there was no need for an intermediary.
But some employees were more skeptical about this relationship. "Mark my word, it's going to be hell up inside that store for we who wanted the union," said Williams.
Seven weeks later, Green was fired.
"She was our Norma Rae," claimed Purcell. "Her and Sonia [Williams]. Can you have two Norma Raes?"
After the vote, Green allegedly spread rumors that all employees of Jamaican descent would be fired. Her supervisors told her that they were investigating this claim, and then fired her the next day, reported Gothamist.
According to Purcell, Green was simply told that she wasn't being nice enough, and engaged in non-positive behavior, like leaving meetings with management in tears.
"They were just targeting a key union activist," said Purcell. He believes Green was fired as attempt to scare employees into submission before a re-run election is announced.
"Sonia Williams is the next to go," predicted Purcell. "They'll find some stupid reason to terminate her."
The UFCW Local 1500 and Green have filed a complaint with NLRB against Target. They're seeking 10(j) relief: because it was reasonable to believe that Green was fired for union activity, they're demanding that she be put back to work pending the end of the investigation.
"Because her termination has such a chilling effect on workers' right to organize, we can't wait three, four months," said Purcell.
Target has fired back against the UFCW, claiming its representatives "threatened and physically assaulted employees as they continued to seek support after the election loss."
Purcell thinks the charges are laughable. "They want to perpetuate an image of unions being like thugs from the 1950s," he said. "We find their charges to be ludicrous. No substantiations, no complaints, nothing from the police. They might as well have accused us of showing up with guns."
In the next two or three weeks the NLRB will announce whether there will be a re-run vote. Although the polls seemed to close two months ago in Valley Stream, the winner is far from clear.
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