One July night in 2010, a block of Upper Manhattan grew thick with millionaires, the cream of the limousine liberal crop.
Down the red carpet came model Tyson Beckford, the reality star Bethenny Frankel, music producer Moby, and Jerry Seinfeld. What occasion brought out these shiny celebs?
A new Target, the Minneapolis retail chain’s 10th and glitteriest to open in the nation’s retail capital.
Imagine, not far outside the glow of those lights, 20-year-old Tashawna Green, a single mother getting through a far less glamorous night in her aunt’s apartment in Queens.
Green had just started work at a Target on Long Island, trying and failing to pay bills on $8 an hour. A year later, she’d get a raise to $8.08 -- not quite enough to get her off food stamps.
By then, Green had become an active player in the push to unionize her store’s 200-some employees, only the second such vote in Target history. The first, in 1987, was defeated. So was Green’s effort in Long Island, though not without Target running a couple trick plays.
The store banned wearing pro-union buttons, workers said, and warned the location might close if workers unionized. The branch was then unexpectedly shut down for “renovations,” scattering employees to various locations for months. (Target notes the National Labor Relations Board later “rejected in its entirety the union’s claim related to the temporary closure.”)
The union backers lost, 135-87. Green was later fired for what Target called her “hostile, disruptive manner.” Organizers offered another reason: “retaliation.”
Seven years went by before Target’s union-busting streak faced another New York election. It starts today. Results might roll in by Saturday night.
In organizing this time around, United Food and Commercial Workers again met with a red wave of opposition.
Strange management-types started showing up, introducing themselves -- first name only -- and striking up conversations. “They flew folks in from Minneapolis and made it their number-one priority to… interrogate workers,” says Aly Waddy, a UFCW 1500 organizer.
Target also tried to block the vote, arguing the drive was illegally hatched because a store supervisor “participated.” Let’s dwell on this: Faced with a workforce intent on banding together, Target tried objecting by observing that one of their bosses agreed.
Target says it has systems in place to hear from employees. But: “We do not believe a union intermediary would improve that process in any way and we are committed to continuing to listen to and support all of our team members, who come together every day to proudly serve our guests.”
It's strange to picture Target as a goonish corporate monster when we generally regard it as Minneapolis’ friendly giant. On a recent night, the Super Target in northeast Minneapolis thrummed with shoppers in Gophers gear piling carts high with groceries, electronics, and towels.
These were educated urbanites in a city that leans ever-leftward, even if its purchase habits don’t. Mention Walmart and you’ll get the scowl you deserve for giving money to blood-suckers. Say you’re running to Target? “Oh, I’ll come with!”
The company covers its wolf-paw prints with acts of decency, like trans-friendly bathrooms and charitable largesse. A Facebook video highlights Target’s contribution to 10 “soccer play spaces” in Atlanta, the first of 100 nationwide, which mascot Bullseye the dog “really got a kick out of!”
But Target also makes charity cases of its rank-and-file. A Star Tribune comparison in July found last year that CEO Brian Cornell made 657 times more than his company’s median employee ($20,581). Compare this to the average Minnesota Fortune 500 CEO, who claims a meager 101 times his employees.
Back in the mid-20th century, when unions represented more than a third of the U.S. workforce, the bottom 90 percent of earners took home 68 percent of the nation's income.
By 2012, just 10 percent of American workers were unionized, and the bottom 90 percent were getting less than half of the total income. The top 1 percent claimed 22 percent, the starkest ratio since 1928.
The workers hurt most are those without a degree or diploma. One study concluded they'd be receiving 9 percent more if they unionized. Add it up across 1,700 Targets and a few hundred thousand employees, and you’re talking real money.
Bernie Hesse, a retired lobbyist and organizer for UFCW, says most of his work concerning Target was “defensive” -- trying to block tax breaks and subsidies this “ultimate welfare queen” demanded from state and local governments.
Organizing a store with a few hundred workers was a bridge too far, especially since Target tended to clip the most vociferous employees first.
Hesse says these New York organizers might find the momentum to win over a modern workforce, which tends to be more cynical about CEOs than preceding generations.
Can’t consumers exert pressure, as conscientious beer-swillers did this spring by switching from Grain Belt to Hamm’s to support striking Teamsters?
Perhaps, but there’s no Target alternative. Amazon, Aldi, Menards, Home Depot… Walmart? Some pay better than others, though they’re all equally villiainous on union-busting, maybe worse, Hesse says, though, “Walmart at least says ‘Fuck you’ to your face.”
His solution is an unpopular one. “I think we should try to get away from materialism some, spend a little less chasing the latest gadget.”
You could start by avoiding Target. At least until you hear it’s stopped wedging its corporate weight against a few hundred New Yorkers fighting for the right to look out for themselves -- and each other.