(Pueblo, Colorado) – After Target workers in Virginia filed unfair labor practice charges for illegal union busting earlier this year, Target workers at Store 0618 in Pueblo, Colorado have experienced illegal intimidation, interrogation, threats, and harassment by Target Corporation and store management as workers exercised their rights to engage in a card authorization drive since August 18th.
Target management has been holding captive audience meetings, holding one-on-one interrogations and telling workers the store will be closed if they sign authorization cards and vote in a union. As a result workers are preparing to file unfair labor practice charges against Target Corporation for this illegal conduct.
Target workers are asking the community for support by demanding store management and Target Corporation to stop unionbusting and breaking the law.
All media inquiries can reach Target workers at (443) 330-7804, email at firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter @TGTworkersunite, or on facebook @TargetWorkersUnite
CHRISTIANSBURG, VA: Target workers at Store 1292 in Christiansburg, Virginia have petitioned for collective bargaining with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after Target Corporation issued no response to a request for voluntary recognition on April 26th, 2022.
In April, veteran Target workers at the store organized a seniority pay petition demanding an additional $2 dollars for five-year veterans from the starting wage, plus an additional $2 dollars for ten-year+ veterans on top of the initial $2 dollars.
Target instructs workers to come directly to the company with their issues, that they have an “open door policy” for workers as if they are willing to address our grievances. After issuing the seniority pay petition Target workers were met with evasive tactics and nonanswers by corporate HR.
Target workers have been organizing since 4Q of 2021 around hazard pay for the persistence of COVID19 across our workplaces. Target tried to pay us off with a $2 dollar holiday pay, but it has fallen far short of the $2 dollar hazard pay we’ve demanded since starting our campaign leading into the holiday season. This was before we even knew about the Omicron variant, which has proven to be highly infectious, and leading to the largest outbreaks among Target workers since the COVID19 pandemic began.
Recently a sympathetic member of management leaked to us emails and trainings issued to intimidate workers from exercising our rights. The screenshots below feature the latest anti-worker and anti-union training management must take across Target workplaces.
The reader can see multiple instances in this training of management being encouraged to be proactive and look for “subtle signs of dissatisfaction” among workers that would make us prone to exercise our rights. They mischaracterize us as a “third party” despite being the actual workers of Target.
The training instructs managers that the problem of worker organizing is that it will “reduce flexibility” – meaning workers won’t be as easily exploited if we regulate our jobs more – that we will “increase operational costs” – meaning that workers will receive a larger share of the wealth we produce through our labor (and less for executives and the major shareholders), and create “conflict between management and employees” – as if the conflict isn’t already present and lopsided in favor of management and the corporation. Target’s philosophy is inherently anti-worker, and anti-labor organizing.
Target does understand the importance of organizing, they want organizing done by management for the interests of the corporation, not for the interests of Target workers. This is why they emphasize in their training that management must build personal connections and relationships with each individual worker to discourage us from exercising our rights.
The training encourages management to keep tabs on all of us, while forcing fake positivity that downplays our economic reality as non-management workers who are not compensated nearly enough as so-called “essential workers.”
The training lists off various “red flags” that should concern management, such as “small gatherings,” “expressions of negative sentiment,” “changes in behaviors with leadership,” and “unusual activities.” According to the training this includes “attempting to influence the team,” “soliciting concerns,” “speaking on behalf of others,” meeting with “recently terminated persons,” “talking with others before or after shifts in the parking lot,” the appearance of “team members dividing into two hostile groups,” “anti Target or pro union graffiti,” “anti Target conversations happening on social media,” “the rumor mill becoming more active or very quiet,” “TMs participating in social media as the topics become work related,” “break room conversations changing from weekend activities, social engagements, and athletic events to pay and benefits plans, job security, seniority systems, and/or grievances,” “TMs ask argumentative or controversial questions at huddles,” “TM complaints increase and the nature changes, group complaints begin to appear,” “sudden increase in requests for copies of corrective actions,” “friendly TMs suddenly stop engaging TLs,” “TMs in deep conversations suddenly clam up when TLs approach,” or “handbills are put on cars in the TM parking area.”
The training emphasizes management should confront workers who are engaging in any of these behaviors to “let them know you are open to hearing any concerns,” which is just a roundabout way to let workers know management is watching and taking notes to report back to corporate.
The training encourages management to use whatever tactics necessary to convince workers that they’re receptive to worker issues, to “apologize” for problems and to excuse corporate policy. But we all know worksite managers have little authority to address systemic issues across Target. Management will never be in a position to meet our demands, but moreso try to placate us and emotionally manipulate us into ceasing our efforts for economic justice.
Target relies on exploiting personal relationships with management in order to stop workers so as not to “hurt” management, while doing nothing to address the underlying economic issues created by the executives and major shareholders who rake in the profits off the backs of Target workers.
It must never be forgotten that management always receives better pay and benefits than non-management workers, in large part because management must do the dirty work for corporate to stop workers from getting a larger slice of the pie we made in the first place.
Corporate wants workers to believe that management has our best interests at heart and that they are on our side yet constantly instruct management to spy on us and prevent any ability for workers to exercise our rights and organize ourselves for our interests away from management influence.
The training even provides hypothetical situations for management to consider as to how they will react when workers stand up. This includes such bizarre examples as stopping food drives, using social media to air group grievances, hiding pertinent information from workers, and keeping workers from speaking out collectively during team meetings. The trainings are all about stopping workers from acting collectively and all about keeping workers separated and individualized so we’re easier to control and manipulate.
Target Workers Unite, and the sympathetic member of management who leaked this to us, provide this information as to better prepare workers while exposing how Target tries to manipulate workers from exercising our rights to win economic justice.
A explicit feature missing from this anti-worker training is that management cannot Threaten, Intimidate, make Promises, or Spy on Target workers. A common acronym known as T.I.P.S. There are references to these points such as watching worker activity on social media, but this would also include management even asking workers about their sympathies with petitions, organizing, or unions. Workers CANNOT be questioned about involvement in exercising their rights, whether it be signing a petition, making a post on facebook, speaking to press, signing an authorization card, etc. Workers CANNOT be told to not discuss wages or bonuses with others!
Other things that must be kept in mind when using our rights is that management will look at ways to discipline workers over their performance – such as tardiness, or not performing duties – in order to issue three corrective actions and terminate workers. It’s a roundabout way to retaliate without being considered retaliation. But even then it must not be discriminatory, all workers must be held to the same standards and any variation can be argued to be selective enforcement. Be sure to call the NLRB with any questions regarding your rights.
Since our sickout on May 1st, we’ve been working to tally the results and draw lessons from our efforts as Target workers fighting for proper safety measures and compensation. While a couple hundred workers participated in our action, it still remains a significant milestone in Target worker history. Never before has Target faced a mass sickout from its workers. Despite what Target officials claim as “fewer than 10 workers” participating, we can confirm the participation rates were much higher based on our sickout pledges and disbursement of Target worker strike funds.
Our sickout pledges were signed by over 228 workers, while our strike fund has been able to distribute over $6,000 dollars to at least 50 Target workers who needed compensation for lost wages as a result of their participation in the May Day sickout. We still have workers reaching out about reimbursement for participating in the sickout, and we are still collecting donations for our strike fund. We had broad representation across stores, and across distribution centers. This action has left us stronger than before, garnering more attention from the public and from Target workers nationwide. We’ve experienced an uptick in messages, phone calls, and emails from Target workers all across the country expressing their concerns over the lack of compensation and safety measures by Target, further validating what workers with Target Workers Unite have said since the start of the pandemic.
Multiple solidarity actions from Target workers and other essential workers happened across the country on May Day to show support. Our actions and their media attention concerned Target executives so much that they threatened legal action against CNBC for airing an interview with one of our members which exposed the routine health hazards we face daily as Target workers. Under the threat of legal action by Target, the CNBC legal team advised the studio to pull the interview off air. Thankfully some concerned citizens were able to save this interview and repost it for the general public to see. The full interview can be found here: bit.ly/CensoredTargetInterview
The concerns of Target workers have only increased as many states are lifting restrictions and reopening the economy. Workers are terrified at the prospect of a second wave of the virus, especially as we head towards the fall/winter of 2020 and the holiday shopping season which starts with Black Friday. Increased foot traffic, loosening of store restrictions (including accepting guest returns, reopening in-store Starbucks, and other measures) all mean increased likelihood of transmitting the virus between workers and guests in our stores and distribution centers.
We are fighting for our lives. Target workers have already died from this virus. More will continue to contract the virus and die from it unless we workers get organized and fight harder for more safety measures, such as shutting off foot traffic inside our stores to workers only. 2020 1Q reports show Target Corporation is beating projected sales, all off the backs of the workers who keep our supply chains functioning during the crisis. As we workers move forward, we will continue to organize and fight for our lives and the lives of all workers across industries and borders.
At Target the foot traffic and guest behavior have been atrocious, putting us at needless risk when greater safety measures are required to ensure social distancing. Workers nor guests have been required to wear masks.
Our maximum capacity of guests have been set too high, their demeanor is also casual and reckless. They do not respect our space, they are not coming to our stores exclusively for essential items, but are occupying our stores out of boredom and for fun.
The guests’ desire for recreation are not more important than team members’ needs for safety. Our pay and compensation are not adequate enough to cover the costs of hospitalization or funeral expenses related to COVID19.
This is why Target team members are engaging in a mass sickout and exercising our right to refuse unsafe work conditions as defined by the Occupational Safety and Hazards Act (OSHA) – General Duty Clause which states in Section 5(a)(1):
“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees”
By engaging in concerted activity with fellow team members we are also exercising our right to organize and strike as defined by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
These federal laws ban any employer from illegal retaliation, including wrongful termination, reduction of hours, demotions, etc, against any employee who exercises these rights. We will file charges for any retaliatory action Target and their representatives may engage in towards workers exercising these rights.
Target Workers Unite calls on all team members to join us this May 1st, International Workers Day, along with other workers across industries and across the nation to fight for our lives, and ensure our safety.
Amongst the Coronavirus crisis Target decided to offer each team member 30 days paid leave if they have any condition listed by the CDC as high risk. Yet management at my store did not tell team members about it. I only learned about the vulnerable Team Member paid leave through a Target employee from a different store.
The leave request is handled entirely through the Pay and Benefits number. Their menu has no clear direction as to which department handles the Coronavirus related leave requests. I had to cycle through all the options for 2 hours until I found the right department.
Altogether my first phone call took over 4 hours to talk to someone. They took my request, gave me the dates of my leave, and asked me to send a picture of my prescription bottle via email as proof of my condition.
The leave pay is calculated by taking the team member’s average hours and halving that. My average hours is 16 but my medical leave pay will only be half of that. They do not tell you this upfront. I had to ask the representative how they calculate the pay because they give the impression you’ll get your full average hours worth of pay, not half.
I waited several days for a confirmation email to be sent back to me about the proof of diabetes. Finally I tried to call them back but for two days they were so overloaded with calls they were rejecting new calls. When I was finally able to talk to a representative I was told I’d need a doctor’s note stating I need to be in quarantine for 30 days.
It took me over a day to get in touch with my doctor and during this time I didn’t know if the dates I were given for my leave were in effect or not, since it hadn’t been approved yet, or if I would even be paid for the leave. I couldn’t get any clear answers out of anyone at Target.
I tried to be patient about getting a confirmation email back because I knew the call centers were overwhelmed but after two days I called them again to confirmed they got the doctor’s note. After waiting another 2 hours on hold the representative confirmed they received the note and they would send an email to me when they either reject my leave request or approve it. They had no estimate of when I will get the email as they are so overwhelmed.
Finally, after 8 days of uncertainty, over 10 combined hours of waiting, and many emails I got an email confirming my medical leave was approved.
Target is touting the paid leave for vulnerable team members as a show of how much they care for their employees but how difficult and convoluted the process is reveals it’s just a PR move and they don’t care at all about their workers.
Since the COVID19 pandemic began Target workers have been living in fear as high risk essential workers. On March 13th Target CEO Brian Cornell and Trump appeared together for his first press conference to declare the COVID19 pandemic as a national emergency while assuring Americans that our stores will remain open.
Both Trump and Cornell have pressed upon the general public and Target workers that we’ll be taken care of while lauding each other’s half measures to ensure our safety and compensation. But we know the reality of the situation is far worse than what either of these two corporate shills are telling us. This is why we’re sharing direct accounts of Target team members being exposed to COVID19 and the efforts by Target corporation and management to deny us the benefits they claim to offer as they threaten team members for taking direct action to protect ourselves for wearing personal protection equipment (PPE), which the company thinks is unnecessary despite what the CDC says.
“they say he’s presumptive positive“
I was working up front, which means Cashiering, Self Checkout, and at the Guest Service desk as well as helping out with various tasks in that area. Most of the time I was on a register. I wore a mask to work the week before because I had been sneezing recently and although I thought it was allergies, I wanted to be on the safe side and not pass something on. At this time [our state] had only announced 1 confirmed case of COVID19.
On the second day of wearing a mask, my direct supervisor took me aside and told me that, due to “guest perception,” that home office’s statement on “this” was: “If you feel sick, you can wear a mask; but that means you’re sick and you can go home, and this absence will be excused.” I asked them to clarify and they repeated the same roundabout explanation, so I clarified that they meant that I couldn’t wear a mask at work, but I could go home “sick” and have that absence count against me. They confirmed that was correct, and asked me “Do you feel sick?” I said no, and took off my mask.
When I returned to work that Wednesday, we were all told that we were “supposed to wipe down everything every half hour,” but the supervisor that day rolled their eyes and added “Just wipe down whenever it’s not busy.” No one was concerned but me. Then on Friday the 20th, the day I left, there was a dedicated Team Member going around wiping down everything semi-regularly, though when they went on lunch and after they left, no one took their place. I wiped stuff down myself after that.
Of course we were slammed all day, and I was in close contact (because when standing in my spot at a register it is impossible to remain 6 feet away from someone) with tons of people. Healthcare workers in scrubs, people who were coughing, elderly people, people who were turning down hand sanitizer when I offered it to them and who were poo-poohing the idea of the virus completely. Finally, a woman came through my line and leaned closer to say to me: “My husband has organ failure and is in the hospital for surgery; now he’s got something wrong with his lungs and they say he’s presumptive positive.” I finished ringing her up and said I needed to go to the bathroom, and switched out with another TM. I told my supervisors that I was leaving. The next day I found out that home office had issued a statement that we were now allowed to wear masks at work, but no one had informed me of that when I was there.
Anonymous Target Team Member
“you do not meet the eligibility requirements”
This isn’t an uncommon account, in other Target stores where team members have tested positive for COVID19 Target will not shut down the stores. Meanwhile the paid leave offered to immunocompromised team members is being denied to team members for not averaging enough hours. Prior to the pandemic we were experiencing an extreme cut to our hours, which is the reason why some team members won’t be approved for COVID19 paid leave. We know Brian Cornell and the upper management of Target don’t have to worry about any of these issues as they get the luxury of working from home while being paid hundreds of times more than us rank and file Target workers.
We’re taking all the risks as Target workers, we need full compensation which includes full coverage of all medical expenses when we contract the coronavirus as a result of Target’s failure to fully comply with CDC guidelines. We have the right to refuse unsafe work conditions. We can’t wait for Cornell or others to ensure our safety, we have to take direct action and wear all PPE the CDC recommends including gloves, masks, and eye protection, while demanding the corporation install sneeze guards at the registers, enforce social distancing and the 10-person rule for gatherings. Please sign our petition below and share it with coworkers as we organize and fight for fair compensation and safety during this national emergency. We are essential workers and we deserve to be treated as essential workers!
If you have an account to share of exposure to COVID19 in your store, having issues with claiming your COVID19 benefits, or any other store issues as a Target worker please reach out to us so we can continue to provide on the ground updates and reports across all Target stores!
The COVID pandemic has been a gift to Target Corporation, its major shareholders and the executive board— but it has been nothing but a burden for Target workers. In 2020, Target set record profits for the entire company’s history, reporting almost a 20% increase in annual revenue for a total of $93.6 billion dollars. Target CEO Brian Cornell was on stage with Trump when he declared the pandemic a national emergency. It has become apparent the pandemic has been used as an excuse for corporate handouts from the state to companies like Target as small businesses were shuttered and workers compelled to report to our jobs as “essential.”
Prior to the pandemic, Brian Cornell made over 700x more than the average Target worker. Now since the pandemic, Cornell receives over 805x more than the average Target worker as the company announces corporate heads can work from the comfort of their homes and we rank and file workers must take a routine risk working in hazardous conditions where Target guests on a daily basis act in unsanitary and disrespectful ways. Those of us on the bottom of the Target pyramid have only received scant bonuses (which were taxed) and no real hazard pay during the entire pandemic despite the sacrifices we’ve made.
We essential workers need to be getting our fair share for working through this pandemic as we face the threat of illness, customer violence, and economic instability. There can be no consideration of fair compensation when wages for workers only averaged a 1.8% increase as CEO average pay increased almost 16% during the same period. With the Delta COVID variant surging across the nation and Target workers now required to mask up yet again, we think it’s past time for us to receive proper compensation and respect.
This is why we are demanding REAL hazard pay and a union. So long as the hazard remains in our workplaces, so long as we must wear a mask for the safety of our coworkers and communities, our pay should reflect that daily risk we take in reporting to our jobs while providing an essential service to our communities. This should at a minimum include a $2 dollar increase as hazard pay.
That we rank and file Target workers have to put together this petition as well as our continual struggle over poor terms of employment and working conditions highlights the fact we workers can’t wait nor rely on the Target bosses to look out for our best interests. This is why we must consolidate further as Target workers through our own rank and file union run by us Target workers and not some third party business union that only wants a portion of our checks to pay their bureaucrats who function much in the same manner as Brian Cornell.
To put it simply, we demand HAZARD PAY and a UNION!
From the organizing committee of Target Workers Unite (TWU): An Open Letter of Solidarity with the organizing efforts of workers at the Amazon Distribution Center in Bessemer Alabama (BHM1) closing a vote today on whether to join the Department Store & Retail Workers Union (DSRWU) and become a union.
In October of 2020, Amazon disclosed that nearly 20,000 of its more than 1 million U.S. employees had contracted Covid-19. Meanwhile, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added a staggering $132 billion to his wealth, becoming the public face of stark income inequality during the pandemic.
At the Amazon distribution plant in Bessemer Alabama (BHM1), where more than 80% of workers are Black, Martin Luther King Jr.’s face adorns yellow placards put up by the company itself, in ugly hypocrisy- the sign reads: The Dream Is Alive.
“The dream is definitely not alive at Amazon,” Perry Connelly, a 58-year-old Amazon worker in Bessemer, said in an interview with a journalist this month. “We work for a billionaire, but we can’t live comfortable, not struggling to pay bills. Am I gonna buy groceries? Or am I gonna pay for my medicine?” The signs that greet him every shift feel like a smack in the face, he added: “A lot of us were going to go and take them down.”
At Target Workers Unite, we share the sentiment that working in a dangerous job while earning less than a living wage during a pandemic is no one’s “dream” -, and we support the Amazon workers fighting at BHM1 to join a union to fight for better conditions at their workplace.
Amazon – whose CEO is the wealthiest man on Earth – has taken the most aggressively oppositional position possible against its workers organizing a union at the Bessemer distribution center. Instead of sharing the wealth from this year’s profits with the workers who’ve put their bodies on the line during this pandemic, and hiring more workers to share in the companies increased workload, Amazon is now paying almost $10,000 per day plus expenses to three anti-union consultants: Russell Brown, Rebecca Smith and Bill Monroe to beat the union – and the company is also paying for Facebook ads urging workers to vote “no” on joining a union. Why is investing in anti-union methods deemed to be such an affordable expense for Amazon, while paying the workers a share of this year’s record profits is not? Obviously the company sees these anti-union expenses as more cost-efficient in the long term than the possible eventuality of paying Amazon workers anything close to what they are worth – especially if the Bessemer organizing effort turns out to be a success that could grow to other centers across the country and ultimately around the world. The company has calculated this, and that’sthereal reason why they are fighting so hard to convince workers not to unionize.
It’s been a rough year for us as essential workers. We’ve been forced to decide against our own health and safety, in order to pay our bills. The reality of coming to work every day into crowded spaces and unfiltered air means that we are simply not safe at our jobs – no amount of “social distancing” will change that reality. Our bosses “thank us” with platitudes of our “heroism” for putting our bodies on the line to help bring food and other necessities to everyone during this pandemic… but we don’t need these empty thanks — and we didn’t ask to be “heroes.” What we demand is respect for our safety, proper compensation for the risks we’re being exposed to, and a whole lot more respect for our bodies and our time. We’re fed up, and we’re fighting back.
On top of these conditions we know that the company’s anti-union consultants are peddling lies to the workers in an effort to get them to vote “no” against a union. We also know that Amazon workers – drivers especially, who are on the road making deliveries so tightly clocked that they have neither the time nor place to take proper bathroom breaks – have said that the practice of urinating in bottles to save time was so widespread that managers frequently referenced it during meetings and in formal policy documents and emails – in spite of the company having publicly denied these realities on social platforms like Twitter. In some cases, employees have even had to defecate in bags. But instead of doing something to alleviate this problem for workers, Amazon has instead retaliated against workers who are forced to resort to these unsanitary and humiliating practices. They punish the workers for a problem that the company itself has caused. And, they’ve lied about it to the public rather than take responsibility for the problem.
And we know we’re not the only ones on your side. Amazon’s unchecked wealth & power are so great that even forces who would normally be content to sit on the sidelines, like elected officials, are speaking up against the company’s abuses. In a public letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos signed by 401 parliamentarians around the world, elected officials said: “[W]hile your personal wealth has risen by around US $13 million per hour in 2020, these workers enter dangerous working conditions, enjoy little or no increase in their pay, and face retaliation for their efforts to defend themselves and organize their colleagues.” In short, Bessemer organizers – it seems everybody but your own employer is on your side in this fight to win a union.
We – and so many others watching – see the Bessemer distribution center workers as leading the way to a more hopeful future for the entirety of the working class – Target employees like ourselves included – as we fight for better conditions in our own workplace. “The vote at the Bessemer warehouse could be pivotal. If a majority of votes cast of the 5,800 workers at the facility, located in the suburbs outside Birmingham, favor the union, they will form Amazon’s first unionized facility in the U.S.” This is why Amazon bosses are fighting so hard to defeat the union. It’s also why it will mean so much to all of us if you win.
Minneapolis, MN – Target workers across the country have come together to draft a new round of demands to petition Target CEO Brian Cornell and other corporate executives to meet the demands calling for proper safety and compensation as we struggle through the second wave of the pandemic.
Target has issued many public statements this year to announce new policies which they claim support Target workers, but rank and file Target team members have experienced how hollow these claims are by the executives. Despite policies on masks, social distancing, and additional compensation for working through the pandemic, workers are reporting a lack of enforcement across Target stores and distribution centers, which has resulted in our workplaces becoming COVID hotspots.
Target workers demand the following six points to ensure our safety:
1. We demand that the number of guests allowed in stores be limited to ensure social distancing
2. We demand that ALL guests wear a mask for the entire time they are shopping within Target stores and that they are asked to leave if they refuse
3. We demand that either Starbucks and Target’s Café close or that management enforces that all food and drink purchased are for To-Go only
4. We demand that (a) management enforce that employees social distance six feet from one another while on their lunches and breaks while in the break room and locker areas (b) each store is deep cleaned by professionals several times a week in addition to TMs cleaning surfaces during their shifts (c) that there is proper ventilation in all the stores and distribution centers with MERV13 air filters (d) Cycle in outside air instead of recycling old in the stores and (e) that FREE Covid-19 testing is made available at anytime to all TMs. ( f) that TMs receive pay for every time that they are required to take leave in order to self quarantine for fourteen (14) days and for every time that TMs are required to take leave in order to recover from Covid-19 for up to thirty (30) days. In addition, we demand that when a store becomes a Covid-19 “hot spot” that with every two (2) cases reported it is then a requirement that ALL TMs (including upper management) be tested for Covid-19 to ensure a safe working environment.
5. Due to the significant health risk we take as essential workers we demand that Target reinstitute the $2 hazard pay as well as profit sharing with the employees due the company’s reported record-breaking profits this year – In addition, we want time and a half for all extended holiday hours that vary from normal store operating hours (i.e. opening earlier and closing later).
6. Stop all retaliation on Target team members for exercising our labor rights
The full language of the petition can be found at bit.ly/SafetyAndPay. All media inquiries can be directed to contact persons with Target Workers Unite at 443 330 7804 or email@example.com.
Christiansburg, Va., resembles many other towns in the United States. There’s a small city center surrounded by strip malls, and the vast sprawl is where most economic activity occurs. Given that these corporate landscapes now dominate the country, maybe it’s appropriate that this is where a radical labor movement is taking shape.
In the basement bedroom of his parents’ small brick house along a hilly Christiansburg back road, Adam Ryan, a 31-year-old part-time sales associate at Target, has amassed a tool kit for revolution: a megaphone, research reports and fliers, and hundreds of books—biographies of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx, histories of Jim Crow and capitalism, and guides about organizing workers and the benefits and limits of unions.
This room has become an unlikely organizing center. Ryan wants to help build a workers’ movement that does not rely on unions or nonprofits to educate or organize and instead trains the workers to do it themselves. The problem, according to him and others doing similar work, is that the big traditional unions have had their missions whittled down. They no longer fight to have workers at the levers of power, preferring to bargain for better conditions at specific companies. That has alienated radicals like Ryan. They don’t want just a better contract. They want a worker-controlled future.
Ryan is guided by the belief that nearly everything good for labor will not be accomplished by paid organizers, nonprofits, or lobbying groups but will have to come from low-paid workers.
The result is Target Workers Unite, a group that Ryan created in 2018 and has had involvement from Target employees across 44 states. There are currently about 500 TWU members, and that number is rapidly growing through the Covid-19 crisis as workers struggle to pay their bills and deal with managers who have underplayed the disease’s threat and with a corporation that has, like many of its ilk, refused to give employees comprehensive paid sick leave.
“Folks are becoming more agitated,” Ryan told me. “I think that leaves us with a good basis to organize our coworkers. I’m hoping that’s the good thing that can come out of all this, that we come out of this more organized and unified as workers—as essential workers.”
TWU was birthed partly out of his frustration with the organizing that the unions were doing with retail workers. Before moving back to Christiansburg, Ryan was living in Richmond, Va., and held a string of restaurant and retail jobs. At each, he tried to organize workers, but he said the unions didn’t lend enough support.
With the Industrial Workers of the World, Ryan said, he felt they were just telling him, “Let’s run everybody through the organizer training and then tell everybody to just go organize their workplaces,” without much continued support.
And he said it seemed the big groups, like the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), had too much of a top-down approach: They come in, help you get set up, help negotiate your contracts, then leave. For Ryan, there wasn’t enough of an emphasis on politicizing workers. Many unions, he said, want to smooth over the worker-boss relationship. He wants the opposite; he wants to agitate it.
As the protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd spread, Ryan tried to talk to his fellow Target employees about how issues of labor, racism, and policing are related. Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, where Target has its corporate headquarters and where the company has formed a close relationship with the police. But many of Ryan’s coworkers have pushed back on his attempts to show the links. He said some of his colleagues are so accustomed to labor organizing being siloed from issues of race that he has found it hard to convince them that the fight for higher wages and the fight against the racist American justice system can be one and the same.
“We need to be pointing out how these things are connected,” Ryan said. “[The mainstream] unions ignore all those connections.”
It’s not that he is anti-union. He’s not against joining one in the future, but he said trade unions have lost their way. Gone is the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the early and mid-1900s, during which unions supported workers seizing factories. Now unions represent the police Ryan would like to organize against.
Targeted: On May 1, Target Workers Unite organized a sick-out to protest the lack of safety measures and protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Target Workers Unite)
For the past 100 years, US labor law has left many workers out of unions altogether. Contractors, who now make up 20 percent of the American labor force, typically can’t join. That has led to a long history of workers finding different paths to organizing. The number of worker centers—where laborers can learn about their rights, meet one another, and obtain legal services—ballooned in the 1990s and early 2000s. There are also dozens of alliances that aren’t unions but fight for workers’ rights in similar ways. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has won wage increases and helped enact legal protections for domestic laborers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has organized tomato farm laborers into a hunger strike, eventually winning wage increases across the industry.
For now, TWU is a little more anarchic. There’s no nonprofit status, no outside donors, just rank-and-file Target workers organizing themselves, largely through the Internet.
Ryan concluded this was the best tack after trying and failing to unionize workplaces in Richmond. In 2017, just as Donald Trump was taking office, Ryan moved in with his parents, Republicans with a love for Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network. He set up his basement as a communist haven and got to work.
He applied for a job at the local Target. He needed the money, but he also saw it as an opportunity to salt—become an employee with the goal of organizing the workplace. He works about 20 to 25 hours a week and makes around $12,000 a year.
Ryan drives the few miles from his parents’ home to the suburban strip where Target is the centerpiece of a shopping center that’s reminiscent of thousands of others. This one also has a Home Depot, Petco, and Chick-fil-A.
Shortly after getting the job, Ryan began agitating. His colleagues had complained about a manager who sexually harassed his employees. Ryan and a few other workers gathered testimonials and planned a ministrike. Ryan stood outside the store with a small group of supporters. Local unions arrived to show solidarity, and the media covered the demonstration. A few weeks later, he got news that the manager no longer worked at the store. It became a blueprint for organizing against Target: Magnify the gap between what the company preaches and how it acts.
“They’re so focused on their public image, and the amount of attention we’re able to get on it was enough to force them to concede to our demand,” Ryan said.
For that reason, he said, he isn’t too worried about retaliation. In fact, the more public he is, the better; privately complaining about a store isn’t considered protected concerted activity by the National Labor Relations Board, but organizing out in the open is.
The stats on labor organizing are grim. Just over 10 percent of the country’s workforce is in a union—a 50 percent decrease since the ’80s. In retail, only 5 percent of workers are organized. The reasons should be familiar to most Nation readers: union busting, right-to-work laws, and labor unions hobbled financially to the point that they cannot effectively organize outside their remaining strongholds.
The legal structure of unionization in the US also shares much of the blame. There are so many loopholes in worker protection laws that it’s relatively easy for employers to get away with firing people for organizing. During the Covid-19 pandemic, employers like Amazon have cited vague employee policy violations to get away with what is clearly union busting.
Kate Andrias, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told me that for several decades the Supreme Court and the National Labor Relations Board under Trump have consistently interpreted laws in favor of corporations. “I don’t think it’s the case that it’s impossible for workers to engage in successful concerted action in a hostile legal regime,” she said. “But it certainly doesn’t help that the laws frequently fail to effectively protect collective action.”
But to Ryan and others, there’s another problem: Many Americans simply do not want to join unions. Recent labor campaigns have failed by large margins. In 2018 the UFCW attempted to organize a Target on Long Island in New York. Nearly four out of five employees voted against it. Last year employees at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee rejected unionization for the second time. Organization United for Respect at Walmart, a unionization campaign funded in part by the UFCW, also couldn’t draw enough support to make a dent in the company’s million-strong workforce.
“There’s a whole generation or two of mistrust or suspicion or at least resignation that these unions will not be able to do anything for them,” said Dan Graff, the director of the Higgins Labor Program at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s kind of a vicious cycle. The labor movement gets smaller. Unions then look less able to do anything. And it’s hard to escape that.”
Most people in the labor movement are loath to criticize unions. But a big part of Ryan’s pitch is that skeptical workers are right: Unions haven’t been doing enough. Decades ago, most of them abandoned radical acts and strikes in favor of contract negotiations. He points to a UPS contract negotiation in 2018, during which workers voted against the contract but the union ratified it anyway.
“They don’t organize workers to develop their capacity to be leaders,” he said. “It’s up to the paid staff and the internationals to determine all that for them. We’re not a formal union, and we’re not really seeking that at this point…. We got the right to organize. We got the right to strike. What more do we need to do what we want to do?”
At the same time, corporations have gotten better at persuading their employees to remain nonunionized, and Target is among the best. Instead of firing organizers—as Amazon appears to be doing—the company has become expert at doing just enough to placate workers. When the Fight for $15 campaign to raise the minimum hourly wage was gaining traction a few years ago, Target was one of the first big corporations to announce a gradual increase in pay, garnering praise from many outside the company. But then to offset the higher rate, Target began cutting hours and health benefits, which received much less attention than the increase. Ryan and other Target employees see this strategy on a micro level, too. If employees complain about anything, Target encourages them to work out the issues through management or call the employee hot line. (Target did not respond to requests for an interview.)
“Many workers get taken in by this,” at Target and other companies, said Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center. “They’re scared to be activists, because they’re scared to lose their jobs, so they hold off on collective action while giving the boss a chance. This can go on for a long time and suck the momentum out of collective action.”
But many labor experts think this is changing. Over the past few years, dozens of worker groups have gone on strike without the backing of unions—teachers in West Virginia, gig laborers for Uber and Lyft, graduate students at the University of California at Santa Cruz. And Americans are increasingly sympathetic to labor. After bottoming out in 2009, support for unions has risen. Last year nearly two-thirds of Americans surveyed by Gallup said they had a favorable view of unions—one of the highest levels of approval in 50 years. Simply put, workers are fed up and taking action.
Sharon Keel is one of those workers. She has worked at Targets in three states for a total of 13 years and currently works in Christiansburg with Ryan. When she started, she found she had little to complain about but little to be enthusiastic about.
Her hours were OK, and she had health insurance. Management never applauded her work, but she could make ends meet. Then Target cut her hours, making her ineligible for health insurance. She hadn’t gone to a doctor for five years, until March of this year, when she turned 65 and Medicare kicked in. Then something seemingly insignificant made Keel reconsider her relationship with the company. A few years ago, as she marked a decade with the company, she heard that it gave employees a $50 Target gift card for 10 years of employment. It didn’t give one to her because her years had been officially reset to zero because of a short employment gap between stores.
Things have gotten worse since then. This year Keel’s father died, and she couldn’t afford to attend his funeral in Alabama. Target used to give employees paid time off for funerals and a sympathy card. It does neither now, she said. The gift card, the sympathy card—they’re small gestures, but they convinced her that the company she’d worked so hard for did not care about her. “You’re just a number,” she said.
She began attending TWU meetings. She told me she now tries to persuade her fellow employees to join, too.
“I grew up [in Detroit] seeing the AFL-CIO, and I just thought that was the best thing ever,” she said. She idolized Norma Rae, the union agitator played by Sally Field in the eponymous 1979 film. “Because, I mean, that was how I felt, that that would be me.”
Ryan bought Keel a poster of the movie. It hangs on a wall in her trailer on the outskirts of town.
Fear is a motivator. The fear of retaliation hasn’t lessened, but the fear of everything else has grown—and that’s an opportunity for organizers. Ryan and countless others have seized the opening provided by the coronavirus crisis to galvanize workers. He answers questions and posts information for Target workers on TWU’s private Facebook page nearly every day. There, workers have detailed how Target hasn’t provided adequate protective equipment, how customers appear not to care about how close they get to employees, and how staffers dread going into work each day. They don’t have much of a choice. Target won’t pay for time off for employees unless they provide a doctor’s note that says they were required to be quarantined or they get a positive coronavirus test result, forcing workers to choose between missing pay if they exhibit any symptoms and getting others sick.
“It’s stressful,” one worker said. “If I get sick, I can’t go home.” Another said he felt a constant low-grade panic working there during the pandemic. “We can be sick. Some could die. But we all need to eat and pay bills.”
Each week, Ryan has been leading video meetings, teaching Target workers their basic labor rights and encouraging them to organize in public and with TWU.
Workers from other companies are also beginning to organize with TWU, including at Shipt, a business that delivers goods from Target and elsewhere that, like the rest of the gig economy, relies on independent contractors. Willy Solis, a Shipt delivery person, said organizing gig workers is hard because they are by design dispersed and much of what they say to one another can be surveilled by the company. Nonetheless, thousands of Shipt workers have reached out to Solis wanting to organize since the Covid-19 crisis started.
Despite the rapid growth of TWU, it’s still tiny—a few hundred members in a corporation that employs 368,000 people. But Ryan draws inspiration from the largely successful wildcat teachers’ strikes in 2018, not only because they were started by workers without the blessing of their union and snowballed into a national movement but also because he sees them as a necessary escalation. When I spoke with him in March, he predicted that more militant actions were not far off. Sure enough, two months later, the country erupted over a series of police killings.
“The pandemic is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.
Andrias said this new wave of labor action is likely to continue. “I think we’re in a moment of crisis where workers are organizing despite all the obstacles,” she said.
Little legacy of labor organizing exists in America’s corporate sprawl. But taking what he has—books and research, online organizing, and most important, the increasing anger of the working class—Ryan believes he can help create something lasting, an ever-growing group of self-trained organizers devoted to building labor power.
From his basement bedroom, Ryan thought back to what helped get him into organizing: Occupy Wall Street. That, he said, reminded Americans that class still existed and that the working class needed to fight. Since then, he’s seen Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, wildcat strikes across the country, and the ongoing uprisings against law enforcement. In Ryan’s eyes, it’s only a matter of time before all of these movements coalesce into something larger, perhaps a general strike, something TWU wants to be ready to help organize.
“Workers are organizing and resisting, but it’s still very underdeveloped, and it’s still very weak, and especially in places like where I’m at…we’re having to rebuild all that from scratch,” Ryan said. “But there’s definitely a moment, and there’s definitely going to be something that shifts beyond it. It isn’t just going to stay like this forever. I don’t think we’re going back to an old normal. That’s done.”