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.”
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Workers of the world are stronger when we’re united. Our bosses know this and that’s why they spend so much time and money to keep us separated. We’re struggling against those efforts and forging unity with all workers who believe we deserve respect and dignity. Recently Shipt drivers (a company which Target owns) reached out to Target Workers Unite about how we can come together and support one another to make our jobs better. Posted below is the discussion we had in learning how Target has been treating us Target team members and Shipt drivers, as well as the similarities of policy from the corporation between our different jobs:
Shipt Drivers: We started in 2016 against Instacart, we thought it would be a one-time thing and kind of move on with our lives but we also realized if we didn’t keep fighting no one else would. so we just kept going and Shipt workers reached out to us and we’ve been trying to help since.
TWU: We were doing research on the whole issue of Shipt after we saw the article with Vice. It really got a lot of attention, we’ve been curious to see how it was going to play out since Target acquired Shipt, but as much as there might be differences we actually found a lot similarities between how they structure jobs for Shipt workers and Target workers, like how they’ve rolled out this new process at our stores called “modernization” and it’s a similar process with increasing our workload, unrealistic expectations and not really providing us the stability we need.
Shipt Drivers: Yeah we would expect there to be a lot of overlap after that acquisition, it seemed like both companies were operating in a separate capacity, but it seems Shipt has been integrated into the larger Target brand and it’s happening quite rapidly now, these noticeable changes since Target took over.
TWU: it’s like they purposely oversaturated the market with more workers than is sustainable.
Shipt Drivers: That’s what they do, that’s their answer, to just hire more people, plus they have that weird cult-like internal environment for Shipt workers. There’s really absolutely no concern about retention. The gig economy model is to hire at decent wages at first which people can sustain themselves on, which shows they know how to pay people properly, so they can build up a market and then eventually abandon any expectation of good pay and those gig workers who were used to the original standard are sort of pushed out and have to find better opportunities because they’re used to the original income, only to replace them with workers who don’t have those expectations or understanding.
TWU: That sounds very similar to our modernization process where they increase the workload while also falsely advertising they pay $15 an hour, but don’t tell you they cut the hours, overhire, and you give less time to do more work. People who are longer-term workers know how Target used to be and they’re seeing how it’s transformed. A lot of new-hires come in and they have no idea how it used to be. They see the new process and that has become the new normal as they’re really stressed out and overworked, but they have no idea how it used to be. In the meantime you have the older workers who feel like they’re being pushed out and off the floor and onto the registers because the workload they’re expected to meet is so huge they can’t meet expectations. It’s all really part of this precarious kind of living in general, it’s totally systemic and intentional by these corporations, turn these jobs into more precarious jobs. If you look at how jobs used to be structured back in the 1970s you didn’t have this idea everybody’s an entrepreneur and to sell their time, every little second all throughout the day with various little gigs, while none of it adds up to be enough. You can say the factory jobs were terrible and destroyed your body and they did, but at least you could provide for your family off of one job and have that security, whereas now there’s no guarantees, there’s no security and we definitely see how Target is exporting its model out to Shipt, all of which is largely in response to Amazon and how they structure their jobs and how they treat their workers. We just saw a report about Walmart rolling out a new model called “the great workplace initiative” which it sounds like they’re doing the same thing as Target’s “modernization” plan.
Shipt Drivers: it’s an industry-wide practice, once one company does that model all these other companies tend to jump on. The gig economy in general is bullshit, selling the idea that you can be your own boss, now you’re an entrepreneur, you run your own business, but ultimately it’s removing the responsibilities corporations once had, the regulations, depriving all these gig workers. if we’re not pushing back incredibly hard just over the idea that that Shipt drivers are misclassified, if we don’t push back it’s going to be expanded, it’s going to be at Target soon, it’s not going to be working for an hourly wage anymore, we’re going to be paid on how many transactions can be made, based on per unit, compensating people for more work at less pay, that’s the future of work.
TWU: it’s already here in some ways, thinking about jobs in the 1970s, that was one of the things the corporations started attacking was the structure of the jobs and the unions. Like re-classifying workers to become independent contractors like truck drivers, truck drivers used to have unions and now they’re independent contractors.
Shipt Drivers: that industry was deregulated and it’s been a clusterfuk ever since, it’s so bad.
TWU: One of the things we wanted to get into more was building our familiarity with what the job is like for Shipt workers. What does the average order look like? What does the whole process look like for an order?
Shipt Drivers: They’ve been pushing down the order size. The average order size is between 10 and 15 items, 30-40 item orders are not too uncommon either, but the smaller orders seem to be taking more of a hold and for some reason Shipt is actually encouraging that. The minimum is $35 for a customer order. Shipt likes to tell customers no order is too big or too small. As far as the processes are concerned it’s pretty much an online order, you pick the order, you deliver it, you have to deliver with a smile all the time and all the while giving an experience that says that it’s better than an instacart experience. You’ve heard the term “bring the magic”?
TWU: Yeah! Bring the magic! That reminded us how Target always likes to talk about being “brand”, they always want us to be “brand”, you know, and that means giving that above-average customer service and always engaging the guest, even having to refer to them as “guests”, we can’t refer to them as a customer, we’ve even had reports from Target workers who’ve been disciplined or terminated because they referred to “guests” as customers, so we get that whole emotional labor aspect. But with the modernization process it’s been very hard to do that because they’re expecting us to do more, but we’re having less face time with the customers than we did in the past. That’s something we hear from customers is that there’s not enough workers on the floor, it makes us think about the future of work in terms of almost like these corporations are driving people away from coming to the stores and pushing for this end-to-end process where you order it and it just magically comes to you. You know, who wants to come to the store and have to go to the self-checkout because the corporation won’t have enough cashiers staffed and you hate having to go through self-checkout because you’re having to give free labor to the company to do that work? So we’re thinking about the process there on the customer’s end of it and they’re frustrated too.
We’ve been doing this survey project the past year trying to get a real sense of what’s going on across stores at Target. There’s a corporate survey we have which no one takes seriously, it’s supposed to be the platform where you can air your issues and is supposed to result in change, but in reality we never see the results and everything just regularly gets worse. Anyway we did our own survey and we spent a while developing it, getting people to take it, and then processing it, we just published it not too long after the Shipt worker story broke on Vice, and Target we found out blocked our website on their servers so workers couldn’t even look at the survey if they were on Target servers, they’ve been trying to ignore and dismiss the results, but any Target worker who reads it will tell you that it accurately represents what it’s like working at Target. Also out of that we developed our Target Worker Platform, which is what we’re trying to propose as an alternative going forward, what Target workers need and how the platform is going to make it better for the customers we serve. So we’re trying to get folks to sign on with that and we are curious what are the demands that Shipt workers have? How do you organize as Shipt workers?
Shipt Drivers: The two issues are the pay cuts that are going to happen nationwide and the weird silence culture. So basically the biggest issue that we face right now is the fear of deactivation, there’s no rhyme or reason for deactivation, they won’t tell you why you were deactivated at all and that’s the biggest challenge that we are facing, the biggest push back that we’re getting, and whenever there’s any talk of trying to address those things people tend to clam up on those issues. Some people are speaking openly about things but that’s a minority right now, so right now it feels like and it looks like that Target and Shipt are making it so markets are completely saturated, and weed out the older workers regardless of what their performance is and substituting them with new workers who are going to be more willing to take lesser pay and not know how things used to be with the better pay. That’s another issue we’re trying to contend with, it’s a marketing blitz they’re doing and they’re definitely attracting new Shipt workers every day, trying to cultivate the idea they’re going to be receiving higher pay than what they actually are with the new pay system rolling out nationwide. We would say the biggest issue is that we are under extreme pressure to stay silent to the extreme. We don’t know how to overcome that other than creating more localized groups and having people meet face-to-face so they can start trusting each other as opposed to having a centralized organization they mistrust. A lot of people trust us at this point because the fact that we put our name out there and got several attacks so they’re like “okay their legit”, but some of the other people who are trying to help organize and haven’t taken that step they’re receiving push back, “what skin do you have in this game?” “who are you?” “never met you”. For us the biggest thing is going to be local organization and making sure that we reach out to new recruits that Shipt is bringing on board, but the culture you speak about at Target resembles a lot of the challenges that we’re facing, it’s resulted from the executive of Target and what they brought over from Target. I think we have a lot in common in that regard, the specific challenge that we face is that we don’t have any labor protection against employer discrimination, reason being that we’re considered independent contractors, it’s a huge challenge.
TWU: We were going to say have you thought about filing EEOC charges?
Shipt Drivers: We don’t qualify as independent contractors. One thing I wanted to expand on was just because this is one point of difference between traditional labor organizing and organizing gig workers is that we are not protected by the NLRA, we have no labor rights under labor laws, we can’t file a petition, there’s no OSHA that we get to go to.
TWU: No wonder these corporations love the gig economy!
Shipt Drivers: Job misclassification is intentional so they can avoid all the regulation, there’s no regulation in the gig economy. California started regulating the gig economy very gently, but it’s not being enforced properly. The reality is in addition to the complications of organizing in the traditional economy there are many added complications when you have misclassification, there really aren’t any formal protections for us. There’s no formal recourse for us, there is no NLRB to appeal to, no state regulatory agency, Department of Labor that’s going to come in and address any safety issues or wrongful termination or things like that. So that’s one of the additional complications to organizing in the gig economy.
TWU: Just like with the truck drivers now, they’ve been trying to build organization, but because they got that independent contractor status they have a really hard time getting traction, but also social media has become such a crucial tool now for trying to organize in these hybrid organizations.
Shipt Drivers: exactly, we wouldn’t have gotten this far without social media.
TWU: same with us, we can’t operate like the AFL-CIO, we don’t have a headquarters, we don’t have the funds to send out field organizers and all that stuff. Our only way is through a Facebook page, Facebook groups, some paid ads, and trying to build organic connections with other workers across the country, but the fear factor is real, even for private-sector workers. But one advantage we have, whether you’re a third party vendor, independent contractor, or actual employee of Target, is that if you read their SEC reports Target directly says that their public image is their most vulnerable thing, and that’s the real leverage Shipt workers have, is that Target is treating its workers badly. That Target has created a situation for y’all that’s way more draconian towards you because you have no protections versus us formal Target workers. They’ve been very hands-off towards us formal Target workers. But again we’ve found from other organizations trying to struggle against Target like this worker center in Tennessee was organizing janitors against Target, but the janitors are not formal Target workers, they’re contracted out by this third party company, and the worker center was able to show and pressure Target to drop the third party company because they were engaging in racist practices against the janitors and Target didn’t want that negative association. So we definitely think that’s an important thing for Shipt workers to consider when trying to win something like a transparent policy to speak freely as Shipt workers. And as Target workers we can definitely utilize our voice to speak out on Shipt workers behalf! We’re sure Target workers would be very interested in knowing the similarities between our jobs and learning that y’all have way less protection and are under a way more draconian system than we are because of that deregulation.
Shipt Drivers: When others see you really coming forward and telling a story, sharing experiences, being open and transparent, it has started to fracture the social cohesion that Shipt created in their official facebook groups for Shipt workers. Including the censorship, the moderation of what actually gets to be published in those groups, for a long time many folks wanted to say something, wanted to do something, wanted to speak out and have just been too fearful, but what we’re seeing recently is that if you kind of open that door and set a path people will follow and that’s something once there’s a critical mass, which doesn’t even have to be that many workers, once you get a critical mass of workers to really start having these conversations in an uncensored way without the absolute fear of retaliation and deactivation the harder it’s going to be for Shipt and Target to contain the bullshit.
TWU: We feel like this is all coalescing, this is great, we got our survey story published independently from y’alls which broke the story about Shipt workers and then the Target warehouse workers up in Jersey just announced they’re going to try to unionize and it’s all blowing up in terms of what’s going on in Target. Target workers are speaking out and taking action and see the need to organize, which is really good and we need more of it and it’s the only way things are going to change. The US has unionization rates in the single digits where it’s like 95% of workers are not organized, not in a union and are at the total mercy of these corporations. That’s probably one of the biggest issues of the mainstream unions, they haven’t put enough effort in trying to organize the unorganized, and have very rigid, fixed ideas how to run organizing campaigns that don’t work in today’s economy and they don’t know how to adapt as well as the capitalists have.
Shipt Drivers: One benefit of not having traditional employment protection or structure is we’re not bound by those rules either. Even though we don’t have proper recourse we’re also not subject to a lot of the same rules around labor organizing like being in a formal union. So like secondary boycotts for example with traditional unions have been illegal for a long time, not for us. Part of what we need to do is figure out ways to utilize those loopholes where we aren’t subject to traditional employment rules and use that against corporations in the fullest capacity to make their gig economy model unsustainable.
TWU: it’s like our greatest weakness is also our greatest strength because we don’t have the protections of formal unions, but at the same time we don’t have to operate by those rules like you’re saying. For us Target workers for instance we don’t have first amendment rights on the job, we don’t have freedom of speech when we work in the private sector. We are basically working for little sovereign kingdoms where US amendments don’t apply. It’s only our labor rights which give us the ability to speak and even then it’s very restricted under the Trump-appointed NLRB, they’ve really narrowed down what qualifies as concerted activity, whereas Shipt can’t censor Shipt workers since you do have first amendment rights. We can’t just go to work and say “I hate Donald Trump”, they can fire you right there for that if they wanted to. Even with that there’s just so much unfamiliarity, and lack of education about labor rights and that’s probably the biggest hindrance for why there hasn’t been more active labor organizing among workers especially in the South where we’re in right to work states and so many people think that means you have no labor rights, but it’s not true! So we have to debunk that idea, that’s one of the big initiatives for us is education and trying to build a base level of knowledge about what our labor rights are and hopefully Target workers hear what y’all are going through and realize “oh my God we have all these protections and rights that people have fought to get we should just exercise them and not be as afraid because we actually have some recourse here that Shipt workers don’t”
Shipt Drivers: There are important points of solidarity, important ways to build solidarity between Shipt workers and Target workers. If we could combine the power of our forces it will be really great!
TWU: We need the “one big Target union”, we want to build connections with the factory workers in China who produce all the stuff we sell at our stores, we need to be building those connections with workers from point A in the factories to point Z where it ends with Shipt workers.
(Editor’s note: While this article was published last year the issue still remains present today. With the Supreme Court currently hearing about the legality of employers to discriminate and fire workers based on their gender identity and sexuality we view it as essential that Target workers and the public know Target’s role in supporting anti-LGBTQ politicians who’ve actively worked to make discrimination against queer workers legal)
For years now Target has garnered much attention and support for its efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity, perhaps most famously supporting trans guests and workers to do one of the most basic things non-trans people take for granted – having the right to use the restroom based on your gender identity. This bold move should be applauded and we should support all power players, such as Target, defending the rights and dignity of marginalized people who otherwise face a world hostile to their existence.
Yet despite these efforts by Target to live up to its self-proclaimed values there is another history that Target has wished to hide. Back in 2010 Target came under massive scrutiny for funding hate-based, anti-LGBTQ politicians. When this contradiction was brought to light Target’s response was:
“Target has a history of supporting organizations and candidates, on both sides of the aisle, who seek to advance policies aligned with our business objectives, such as job creation and economic growth. MN Forward is focused specifically on those issues and is committed to supporting candidates from any party who will work to improve the state’s job climate. However, it is also important to note that we rarely endorse all advocated positions of the organizations or candidates we support, and we do not have a political or social agenda.
In the context of this contribution, some of you have raised questions regarding our commitment to diversity, and more specifically, the GLBT community. Let me be very clear, Target’s support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company.”
Former Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel
It is important to emphasize that the above justification was based around the issue of economics, meaning that Target, as a corporation, will do whatever it must to create the most favorable conditions to maximize its profit margins, even when that means funding hate. We would have thought that since this incident the executive leadership would have learned that they can’t claim to respect diversity and inclusivity for its guests and workers when they consciously choose to fund hate-based politicians.
This is not an old issue, but an ongoing one that remains right up to the present. This year alone Target has given tens of thousands of dollars to some of the most vehemently anti-LGBTQ, anti-worker politicians in the country. Based on our research Target has funded 28 of these politicians, all of whom voted at one time or another against passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Actwhich would give protection to LGBTQ workers against workplace discrimination. The overwhelming majority of these same 28 politicians also voted for one of the largest wealth transfers in modern US history at the expense of the 99% into the hands of the 1%. Their touted tax bill will also lower the corporate tax rate from the current 35% to 21%, giving corporations $320 billion dollars in benefits. It is a complete lie that Target funding these anti-LGBTQ, anti-worker politicians is not part of a “political or social agenda”.
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the nefarious actions these politicians have engaged in, which Target has enabled. Take for instance Rep. Cathy Rodgers, who not only co-sponsored a state bill in Oregon to ban gay marriage, but had ties to white nationalist James Allsup. Or we could look at another Target politician such as Sen. Roy Blunt, who voted to ban gay couples from adopting children, also voting against a federal minimum wage increase to $10 dollars. There’s Rep. Bradley Byrne, who endorsed the infamous pedophile Roy Moore and refused to rescind his support for Moore even after all victims stepped forward to speak out against Moore’s abuse. Rep. Bryne also is in favor of Trump’s Muslim ban – how does that pair with Target’s beliefs of diversity and inclusivity?
Probably the most ironic of all is Target’s enabling of politicians like Rep. Mark Walker, who fought to enact North Carolina’s infamous HB2 bill, which bans trans people from using the restroom according to their gender identity. And then there’s Rep. Virginia Foxx, who not only dismissed the hate crime committed against Matthew Shepard – which prompted the passage of anti hate crime legislation known as “The Matthew Shepard Act” – she also believes corporations should have access to their workers’ DNA.
Here is a complete list of the hate-based politicians Target funds:
We say “no more” to all of this. We demand that Target executives be held accountable for their actions, which cause harm to Target workers and guests. We demand that Target executives absolutely stop enabling and funding hate. We demand Target executives actually be consistent with their self-proclaimed values which are supposed to respect diversity and inclusivity. Will this moment be just one more instance of Target executives demanding that we do as they say, not as they do? Or will Target executives live up to the millions of dollars they have invested in cultivating an image of being “progressive”?
In these waning days of Babylon, there seems to be little to give the class conscious among us hope. Every day a new outrage from America’s supreme warlord, a dire environmental prediction, and some horrific abuse perpetrated by vampiric overlords comes across our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Is it any wonder so many of our comrades are lost to suicide, drug overdose, or helpless despair? Is it any wonder so many leftists spend their time in Facebook debates instead of organizing their fellow workers? Thankfully, there are those among us who have taken the step from despair to action. There are people like organizers in Cooperation Jackson, Familias Unidas Por Justicia, and the Burgerville Workers Union fighting for a new dawn to break the darkness of capitalism. One of the groups, standing on the vanguard of the movement for emancipation from the despotic wage-system, is Target Workers Unite. TWU is a grassroots, communist-led, workers’ organization that is breaking from legacy models of business union and artificial divisions between spheres of organizing. Not only do they organize on the shop floor, but they also organize tenants as a part of the same campaign to create better conditions for Target Workers everywhere. Despite being a fairly new organization, they are experiencing rapid growth and have won several victories. What they’re doing isn’t rocket science, and any reader of this magazine can apply their strategies and experience to their own communities, workplace, and apartment complex. Inspired by their work I interviewed two organizers from Target Workers Unite so they could share their perspective. The full interviews are below.
A: Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
R: Yeah so my name is Remi Debs Bruno and I am a freelance writing and copy editor, a student, and, to get down to what matters here, an organizer for Target Workers Unite. I also work in freelance journalism and editing, and I’ve just recently returned to university here in Baltimore.
A: Thanks Remi, could you explain what Target Workers Unite is?
R: Sure. Target Workers Unite is an insurgent, multi-front, and stridently communist organization of workers in Target stores and within their communities. Our strategy hinges on bottom-up decision-making, militant tactics, and integrating labor struggle into broader community self-organization, such as tenants’ unions
A: So you’re a group of workers at Target coming together to improve your conditions?
R: At the most basic level, yes. And that novel concept seems to be an absolute epiphany for folks, judging by the rate at which we’re contacted nationally.
A: What differentiates TWU from a labor union?
R: Well, at the simplest level, we are not a recognized collective bargaining unit. But there are more important differences, I think.
A: Can you expand on that?
R: The traditional American trade unionist model is simply not effective within the post-Fordist neoliberal labor landscape. Where business union behemoths have even attempted to organize within “flexibilized” and “modernized” sectors— which comprise a huge proportion of workers— they have failed immediately. That being the case, TWU operates with a different goal. Consequently, we have a different strategy.
A: For our readers not as familiar with these terms, can you explain what Fordism is? And how changes in the economy cause older union models to fail?
R: Yeah, absolutely. Fordism is the moniker used by many Marxists and other economic historians to denote the period of Western political economy characterized by factory production, assembly-line style methods, the class collaboration typified by a single wage-earner being able to support a family, and the expansion of the social welfare model.
Starting around 1970, this uneasy truce between workers and owners ceased satisfying the owning class. They figured that if they could manage to shake those costly fetters of regulation, taxation, and a living wage, they could probably change the work-pay equation in their favor. During the intervening decades, the capitalist class and their political system commenced to crush labor unions, cut taxes, and roll back safety and ethics regulation. The unions we have today (to the extent they even exist) are structurally limited to operating within a paradigm that no longer applies. They pretend that there’s some mutually beneficial agreement that can be reached with owners. And they can only pursue this moronic vision by acting as a bureaucratic intermediary between workers and owners. So they come into workplaces as an outside force promising to manage negotiations in workers’ favor. But the old rules no longer apply. Production is largely gone from the West. Service employees are circulated among businesses in an intentional, endless turnover cycle. Oligopolist corporations will gladly close an organized store. So the Fordist process of ‘infiltrate-convince-negotiate-win contract’ is dead. And the trade union ecosphere is a zombie staggering on its last legs.
A: What role do you think automation has played in the breakdown of Fordism?
R: Well, it’s structurally inevitable that capital will tend to minimize the required labor in production. When it happens, this looks great for the owning class and its higher management. And it is generally a massive windfall for the first firms to institute labor-saving technologies. But what these segmented individuals can’t see is that, for the system as a whole (i.e., the economy on which we depend), less labor in production equals less valuable products. But this race to worthlessness can’t be stopped or even slowed. If one firm won’t do it, another will, and the first will be ruined. The disintegration of the postwar Fordist halcyon is complicated to explain, but a large part of it is simply the ineluctable imperative for capital to move where labor is cheap. Automation has ended the possibility of productive labor for millions and devalued the labor of millions more. Meanwhile cheap shit is slapped together by women in hyperexploited nations. Capital had to degrade the Fordist stability. It cannot sit still, ever.
A: That’s really interesting. So you’ve explained why the old AFL-CIO model doesn’t fit today’s conditions, but what about other union models like the Industrial Workers of the World or UE (United Electrical)? Wouldn’t it make sense to organize together with other revolutionary unionists? Or do you have a different strategy?
R: I personally think that the Wobs [IWW] put on the best Organizer 101 training there is. We’ve collaborated with them many times, and work with them as much as possible. As far as UE, we hold them as the best union extant in the US. So we have no aloofness in our relation with actual revolutionary organizations. It is institutional, social-fascist, opaque and undemocratic business unions that we truly hate. But we also differ from even the best syndicalist unions in that we’re trying for something different. We want to build distributed but connected local power along the lines of the Black Panthers. That’s why we build tenant unions along with labor orgs— we want to build the foundation of a communist majority that can take all of society for the people. So the difference there is objective— the fact that we’re not fighting to win a contract, but fighting to build direct, independent dual power which differentiates our strategy and actions from trade unionist and workerist organizations.
A: You mentioned tenant unionism, how do you bridge the gap between workplace organizing and tenant organizing in practice?
R: It seems like a big ask, but when you start to do it, you realize it’s intuitive. The people whose lives are determined by a Target scheduling program that “optimizes” their work and pay to 17.34 hours a week live somewhere. And, unsurprisingly, that somewhere is usually in the community, and in the poorer parts of it. The tenant union effort is easier in rural areas than it is in Baltimore, where I am, simply because of the huge distribution of housing in the city. But it’s doable regardless. And when you help folks come together and think of themselves as people with agency and the power to fight and express that rage we all have in us at work and at home, people activate. They become the most vociferous worker activists you can imagine. And, whether they put a label on it or not, they become socialists. They become conscious of who truly reproduces society every single day, and who naturally ought to rule and own the world.
We do it through simple stuff; things you’d think are laughable and meaningless. For example, we literally have a People’s Mower. We, the militant, armed communists will come now your lawn if you can’t. And then we talk to folks.
A: Besides tenant unionism and shop floor organizing, what other kinds of organizing do you do?
R: Well, the folks in Virginia are the pioneers here as far as our organization goes. There was plenty of endogenous work being done in the Baltimore area prior, but we are looking to duplicate such initiatives here under the loose banner of this… whatever it is. In Virginia, it’s under the name of New River Worker Power and comprises outreach of various sorts, responsive to the needs of the community and the resources we can Marshall to meet them. I’d talk to Bradley here, given that I don’t want to steal their thunder for work I haven’t done on their end. But I’m trying to forge working connections with the harm reduction (illegal here, but still present), prison outreach, food aid, and general mutual aid currents already extant in Baltimore while incorporating the workers themselves into that effort. And of course, they’d often be tenants, too. They’re also poor people largely who may need assistance. And we all need defense.
A: Wow that’s a really bold vision. Would you characterize your strategy as “whole worker organizing”?
R: That’s probably a good way to phrase it. Since our fundamental class identity is “workers”, second only to people. And framing this as a people thing is great l, but de-platforms the society-changing necessity of class relation.
A: That’s a good point, workers are still workers outside the shop. Speaking of work, I imagine there’s a lot of it ahead of TWU. For those of our readers interested in getting involved in that, how would they do so?
R: Well, first off I’d encourage any and everybody who wants to institute rank and file power to get with their friends, coworkers, and community and think through what they need and what they can do. But I also want each and every person at all interested in this to contact us using any of the following means: email@example.com, the Target Workers Unite Facebook page (a bit harder for us to respond on), the Target Workers Unite Chuffed page, or if need be at my personal email, Remi.Bruno@pm.me. We want to spread this method of building real democratic power everywhere and to fight back for workers’ control. So if folks want to keep track of our progress, they can follow us on Facebook at Target Workers Unite and New River Worker Power.
A: So, how did you get involved in TWU?
R: I think I first ran into TWU through the Marxist Center Labor Organizers Facebook page. I connected with Bradley, who founded TWU some time prior and eventually I asked him to attend a meeting of a coalition of far-flung, insurgent unionists for a training. Bradley and a friend of his, an organizer with TWU and the New River Workers’ Power outfit, came to my house in Baltimore and we connected a bit more over the course of that three-day convention. It just so happened that a bit before then, workers at two Target stores in the Baltimore area reached out to TWU. We were able to help them organize a semi-successful strike, and then to coalesce into committees. Now there are four Baltimore stores at which we have some level of engagement, and folks want to strike with a bigger force. And here we are.
A: How many people would you estimate are involved with TWU?
R: We’ve had a massive surge in interest recently within at least 7 states in the US, we’ve received around 800 reach-outs this month, we’ve got around $2000 in donations for our strike fund and general resources pool for publishing literature, etc., and we’ve got committees at stores in Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and hopefully Texas soon. But we were caught completely unprepared for the exponential explosion in exposure. Lacking the resources of a massive union, we can’t send organizers to every store that’s reached out, and we’re trying our best to organize a good way to respond to all of the inquiries. So we’re forging connections with organizers throughout the country, many of them affiliated with the Marxist Center, and trying to develop a method to systematically plug these workers in.
Our survey, designed to counter the mandatory Target questionnaire and to collect worker info has been responded to by 500 workers so far. We’re using it to generate real information about conditions at various stores during the Modernization Plan and to generate demands.
A: What has the wider community reaction been to your efforts?
R: By and large, very sympathetic. And really sympathetic isn’t the right word. I think energized may be a better descriptor. They see an unexpected struggle from workers thought of as transient, low-skill, and poor, and they’re inspired by that. But it’s been a revelation to me just how deskilled we are, socially. People— grown, working people— have no clue that they can engage in class struggle or how to do so. There’s an incredible degree of anger and electricity within our workplaces and communities but we’re taught there’s no outlet for that. Life just sucks and it’s your own fault. But when people see collective, militant, effective action they’re almost mystified. And then they reach out. It starts as a request for us to send someone to fix things— almost in an “I want to speak to the manager” way. But once we make it clear that the only way out is through, people grok the concept quickly.
A: Has there been any negative response? Like accusations of being “outside organizers”?
R: There are a few anti-union folks, as there always will be. But in my experience, they have been vanishingly rare.
A: How has Target itself responded to your organizing efforts?
R: It’s a funny situation borne of the total death of unionism over the preceding decades. Neither workers nor management have any clue what’s going on at first. Management typically first responds by being stunned and completely befuddled at the concept of workers associating beyond their assigned drudgery. So management overstepped a few times, no doubt ignorant of the very fact of labor law in the US. So we had to file ULPs a couple of times, which succeeded. Since then, there’s clearly been a memo circulated telling lower/mid-management not to fuck with us: they figure we’re an isolated nuisance, maybe, and it’s best not to lose cases at the NLRB. But the fact of our wins speaks volumes as to the fertility of this terrain. Angry, oppressed workers plus ignorant and arrogant management equals serious potential.
A: Can you explain what a ULP is and what the NLRB is?
R: Sure; I’m glad we’re defining jargon rather than glossing over things we all need to know and engage with. The NLRB is the National Labor Relations Board, created by the National Labor Relations Act. Within the framework the capitalist state created to defuse and mediate labor struggles and gatekeep protected unionism, workers can allege wrongdoing on the part of businesses. These are reported and adjudicated by filing an Unfair Labor Practices complaint. So we try to use the tools of the bourgeois state so far as they go, even if we don’t use an NLRB election or formal contract negotiation as our horizon.
A: What would you consider your horizon?
R: Well, the beauty of that is that it’s always in flux, as any democratic, flexible movement should be. What we do know is our uncompromising principles. We are communist. By that, we mean, of and for the masses. We aim for the establishment of worker control and the collective dissolution of capitalism and its coercive, destructive, soul-killing structures. We want to be one patch in a quilt of similar, insurgent movements which create multi-front organizations in their areas. The labor movement— even at its long-gone height was economistic. That is not a new idea. But the antidote to that limitation, one which is urgently needed and possible today, is a comprehensive organization of people into formations through which they control their lives. We can overcome our alienation this way, we can defeat our oppressors this way, and we can take and run the society we and our predecessors built this way. Naturally, as events progress our concrete goals will instantiate themselves accordingly. Thus far this level of flexibility and anti-programmatic principles have worked and has been attractive to people. Naturally, we will eventually be able and willing to engage in collective bargaining and such, but we don’t want to circumscribe our vision to that extent while we’re still fluid, insurgent, and rigorously democratic.
A: On that note, I want to thank you for taking the time to interview with us here at Cosmonaut. This has been really illuminating and for myself, I’m pretty inspired by the work and vision embodied in your organization.
R: I’d like to thank you for taking the time and effort to conduct this interview. I hope there’s something of interest and value here.
D: Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
T: My name is Bradley, I am a retail worker for Target Corporation going on 2+ years now. I’ve been working in retail and the service industry for the majority of my working life here in the state of Virginia. I have been involved in leftist and working-class organizing for over a decade. My organizing at Target is only my latest effort.
D: Thanks Bradley, could you give us a brief overview of your past organizing experience?
T: 9/11 was a defining moment for me in what became the starting point in transforming my politics from the right to the left, going through that standard process of conservative-to-liberal, liberal-to-leftist in large part because of the buildup to the Iraq War and the lies perpetrated to justify it as well as the War on Drugs and my initial self interest of not wanting to be criminalized for smoking pot. It was from that point when I was in high school that I attempted to organize against the Iraq War and against the War on Drugs. It was a very defeating experience. The amount of apathy and pushback from both the student body and the faculty really left me feeling isolated. Granted where I grew up is in the middle of Appalachia and the South where militarism, patriotism, and all-round chauvinism is the default culture. Our local economy is built around it as an industry, from the explosives plant to the military officers school at our local college, even my family was dependent on the local military industry, not to mention we are talking about the early 2000s where all those elements were hegemonic across the entire country and the Left was practically dead.
I saw what some of the local liberals were doing at the nearby college against the war and all it amounted to was some symbolic protesting, there was no material struggle behind their efforts nor would they have an interest in doing so considering they were comprised of either naive privileged college students or middle-class faculty living comfortable lives.
Because of a lack of a leftist presence in our rural area, I basically had abandoned any idea of real political action and drifted towards a lifestylist drop-out culture. I moved off to a small farm in an even more rural area than where Im from to pursue those ends and it was by chance I ran into some political anarchists who were doing work around the Virginia prison system in collaboration with Kevin Rashid Johnson and the New Afrikan Black Panther Party – Prison Chapter.
I quickly dropped the drop-out thing and got involved through this joint effort under the name SPARC (Supporting Prisoners Acting for Radical Change). We did a rideshare program for the families of prisoners, offered a political education program to prisoners wanting revolutionary theory, we helped to coordinate and support multiple hunger strikes in two of the most notorious prisons in our state. We even teamed up with an IWW branch to sponsor prisoners as union members – a sort of proto-IWOC effort before that became established nationally among the IWW. It wasn’t half – bad but it was a ton of work for a tiny amount of working-class people trying to support ourselves on top of all this organizing. We got burnt out, the demand from prisoners was tremendous, going beyond state lines even, and we were never more than a dozen people trying to sustain this all the while we were dealing with internal drama like snitchjacketing, a scandal of sexual abuse by the IWW branch secretary, and splits from the abusers in the former Revolutionary Students Coordinating Committee in New York during our period of affiliation with the New Communist Party – Organizing Committee, now the Maoist Communist Group.
After sorting through all that we took a break to restructure and rethink our strategy (or lack thereof) and launched a new organizing effort as Richmond Struggle. In the process of all this work, we relocated to Richmond, Virginia to be closer to the families of prisoners we were working with. We decided we were too small to organize against the most well-funded state agency and turned our focus on organizing in the city itself. It was through these efforts we waged some struggles against public school closures and tuition hikes at the local state college – trying to draw connections between the two issues and their ties to the legacy of white supremacy, which includes denying access to the Black working class for education and re-enforcing the capitalist division of labor. Unfortunately, we experienced, yet again, a series of internal crises that split the group and which resulted in my loss of housing in Richmond since I never had a formal lease (couldn’t afford one) and always had to pay under the table to live somewhere in the city.
So having no place to go I ended up back in my hometown living with my family like a typical millennial. I initially planned to regroup, save up funds and move back to Richmond, but I found it very hard to build up any savings and stability. I also felt a compulsion to do some organizing back in my hometown because if I’m not doing it I feel defeated and passive towards what’s going on in the world. That’s how New River Workers Power started back in 2016/2017. Since then we’ve been doing tenant and labor organizing with our Target organizing having the most prominence and success.
D: I think a lot of our readers can relate to economic situation deciding what kind of conditions they’re going to organize in. So you said you started New River Workers Power in 2016. When and how did Target Workers Unite start?
T: I think you can place the origins of Target Workers Unite with our initial organizing at my hometown Target store. When we first launched NRWP I had built up a core of myself and some grad students at the local college and began a period of social investigation. We went to trailer parks all over our county to canvass and talk with poor and working-class tenants about the most prevalent issues for them, we had no preconceived notions of what we would organize around, instead of applying the mass line to determine our direction and focus. It was out of this that tenants decided the biggest issue were slumlords. Our first wave of tenant contacts came under slumlord harassment very quickly. Threats of retaliation via eviction were made and scared the tenants back into hiding. Unfortunately, in our state, the tenant law gives a slumlord the ability to evict tenants rather easily. It’s very common for tenants to be late in their rent and it’s that issue which leaves open a wide door for slumlords in our state to legally retaliate by evicting any troublemakers.
Because of this initial setback, we shifted focus to labor organizing. It emerged in a very organic manner from our efforts around working-class housing. As we were doing social investigation and building contacts across the trailer parks we discovered several contacts worked at our local Target store and would mention how the boss there was a reactionary abuser of women workers, LGTBQ workers, and POC workers. We decided we could go salt this store and build up both community and workplace support to oust this boss via a strike action.
We did this in a matter of about four months, first starting with an accumulation of testimonies from current and former workers who could speak on their experiences of abuse or witnessing abuse by this boss. As we did this we also did a lot of community outreach to the few labor unions in the area as well as other community groups. We didn’t really care if they were primarily liberal groups, we were more concerned about building a united front to win a concrete demand, besides it was our initiative which liberals had to tail if they wanted to be relevant.
Our efforts worked with a minimal amount of people, we technically only had two workers go on strike, but the timing and preparation for the action made it a success and we forced out the boss by the second day of the strike, we even forced Target to cancel its annual “college night” event where they hire bus fleets to shuttle the nearby college students to the store because we called for a student boycott.
It was after the success of this strike action that we had the NGO United For Respect (formerly OUR Walmart) reach out and ask if we wanted to work with them to organize Target and other retail workers as part of a national effort. I’ve always been skeptical of NGOs and unions, but still was curious to see what they had going on. This set off a process that has only recently come to an end which featured a perpetual struggle between us rank and file workers and the board of directors and their paid organizers. We came to find out the level of interest in organizing by this NGO was limited to essentially turning workers into lobbyists collaborating with the corrupt Democratic Party with no actual emphasis on workplace organizing. (Read about the break from United For Respect here)
The second action we attempted to organize after our first strike was at a Target store in the Baltimore metro area. I linked up with Target workers at this store through the NGO and emphasized the importance of direct action and strikes based on our success at the Target store. Initially, it seemed the NGO was supportive of another strike action against more abusive bosses at this Target store in Baltimore, but as we got closer to the strike we were discouraged by the NGO to follow through. All gains made from this strike action were a result of our own efforts as rank and file workers, we had no other choice if we wanted this to happen and we were told by the NGO to not mention them or associate our action with them to the media and we didn’t. But then the NGO went and took credit for our action after the fact. It was after this that other Target workers were now legitimately skeptical of the NGO and its intentions to “organize” retail and Target workers. At one point the NGO even told us they were going to close down their efforts to “organize” Target workers, leaving us hanging. That’s when we decided that we needed to have our own independent structure not reliant on this NGO and launched the Target Workers Unite project. We still tried to collaborate with this NGO despite their many transgressions and their refusal to discuss the issues we raised. The last effort we really collaborated on was our Target worker survey project we crafted.
I noticed they were trying to work around us Target workers involved with Target Workers Unite and attempted to bring in new Target workers who wouldn’t cause them as much “trouble” as we had. I’m not surprised by their actions at all, but it’s still infuriating nonetheless to be continually disrespected by an organization claiming to be about respect and represent workers. I and others have sunk a ton of personal labor and money into fleshing these efforts out while still trying to work with this NGO and they have largely played a parasitic role on our efforts. I made sure to let every Target worker we had contact with know the transgressions and character of this NGO so as to not be duped and go through the same demoralizing process as we had. As a result, I and other Target workers were kicked out of the spaces we built up and anything we had collaborated on, like the survey project. We lost access while this NGO claimed it was their property, despite the fact it was Target workers who crafted and labored over the survey project the last several months with little-to-no help from the NGO. Thankfully, because we have the support of Target workers as Target workers ourselves, this sleazy behavior has only revealed to workers involved how they don’t really have us workers interests at heart.
D: That’s a really harrowing story. I want to ask you more about this NGO but first could you please explain for our readers what the “mass line” is both in theory and now you actually practiced it?
T: The simplest way to describe it is from the slogan “from the masses, to the masses”, the ability to synthesize the scattered, yet correct idea of the masses into a programmatic fashion and re-transmit those ideas back to the masses to further the real movement towards communism requires a large enough core of cadre who have the capacity to synthesize the masses’ ideas and carry out the praxis based on that. In our conjuncture the Left is largely amateurish, having lost a living tradition of revolutionary left institutions to train up younger generations to not only be organizers but also theoreticians, to be both red and expert. We can’t claim we are professional revolutionaries, we are young working-class leftists trying to learn from revolutionary history around the world and the working-class history in the US while experimenting to see what works without degenerating into reformism. I would say our efforts with the Target campaign both locally and nationally are an example of an attempt at applying the mass line, incorporating aspects of workers inquiry as well. Our survey project is probably the most organized effort to engage in a “mass line” practice at the moment. It’s a perpetual cycle that militants must constantly engage in, which requires us to be able to “swim like fish in the sea of the masses”
D: So you used workers inquiry to gather the disparate ideas and interests of Workers, but how did you synthesize them and retransmit them?
T: In the instance of these abusive bosses we gathered worker testimonies and from that digested their experiences to determine what would be the best course of action to get rid of the boss. For example, we were told by workers others had attempted to use the internal channels provided by Target Corp to hold these bosses accountable which only resulted in worker retaliation. Because we had prior knowledge and experience with labor organizing and labor law we were able to develop a plan we thought would be most effective to realize the apparent demand that the bosses be fired and without turning it into a campaign for unions or politicians to recruit workers into their efforts.
D: Thanks, that makes a lot of sense. So you took your more advanced knowledge of the conditions of society and class struggle and used those as a lens for seeing how to address grievances among the workers. And this led to an NGO taking an interest. Can you give a little background on the NGO? You said they wanted to make workers into lobbyists and are associated with a union? Which union was this and what sort of “help” did they initially give?
T: United For Respect, formerly OUR Walmart, has its origins as a UFCW front founded during the 2010s. Their organizing efforts are largely like the SEIU front Fight For $15. The emphasis isn’t on actually organizing workers, but rather to stage public actions which can then be used to generate some polished media and use “pressure” to try to get policy changes. In 2015 UFCW decided to cut funding to OUR Walmart and forced their directors to find a new source of revenue, which led to them partnering with Center For Popular Democracy – an offshoot of the defunct ACORN organization. So they are not tied to any union now, but thoroughly the NGO industrial complex, reliant on grants and philanthropists to pay the salaries of staff. And yes they instrumentalize workers for their predetermined agenda set by their board – which they like to claim has Walmart workers on it, but I don’t think the few who are on the board are still Walmart workers. I think because they also have had no real traction in organizing on the shopfloor (not that I think that was a real priority as much as they emphasized organizing “small circle groups” in stores) at Walmart or really anywhere else it’s cheaper and less risky to just take workers away from their jobs and put them in front of a city council, politicians, wall street firms, or shareholder conferences to talk about how workers’ lives are shitty because of a lack of pay, benefits, or stability. Then they use these public speeches to push for legislative reform, which inevitably leads to GOTV efforts for Democrats. This is a good critique of their sort of strategy.
One thing I noticed is how much the directors and staff emphasized all these “victories” they had won as a result of their efforts, yet if you point out things like the wage increase at Walmart came at the expense of thousands of Walmart workers being laid off they will deflect and say this mantra of “this is a marathon, not a sprint” as if we should celebrate workers being laid off. That doesn’t build trust or solidarity among workers at all, completely the opposite.
D: So you’ve obviously had serious tensions with this NGO and have shown how their model is bad for the workers you’re organizing, but besides organizing minority strikes and boycotts how does your strategy differ from theirs? And more importantly, how does it differ from a traditional union like UFCW?
T: Firstly, we have no delusions about how monumental a task it is to organize workers in a giant corporation with very little funds and capacity. We still have to develop a larger strategy that aids us in growing beyond our current confines. Some tactics used by unions and labor NGOs are fine for us to use as workers and leftists, but we recognize that we cannot have a win or force concessions without worker organization on the shopfloor. Amilcar Cabral’s slogan of “tell no lies, claim no easy victories” I think is crucial for us to remain grounded and not try to peddle bullshit like the unions and NGOs do (which is why they have little traction and a lot of skepticism from the working class in general). We have to build a solid foundation in order to build an organization that is substantial, we still are at the point of building our foundation. And that is determined by our conjuncture of low levels of class consciousness and worker activity. Workers are not even educated on labor law, here in the South private sector workers think Right To Work laws means they have no rights, that unions are illegal. It’s a frequent idea I encounter which goes to show how pervasive the fear and feeling of powerlessness workers have. Our small scale strike actions across stores are attempts to build the knowledge and experience with coworkers, showing and demonstrating to them you can take direct action on the job and not be fired, that you can have victories. It’s crucial we be able to build morale among workers. We have to popularize the idea that workers themselves are the agents of change in all this.
Until we have built that up enough and more thoroughly cement shopfloor worker committees in the stores the ability to fight and win will remain on a limited scale. This is also why we are conducting our survey project as a means of synthesizing the ideas of Target workers across hundreds of stores to craft a master demand list and to begin propagating that along with other materials to build up class consciousness and a militant, fighting spirit among the workers.
We also are not seeking a formal union, that would be a disastrous strategy at this point and would result in more demoralization. Instead, we are trying to operate in a similar manner as the Knights of Labor and other early labor organizations in the US who operated in an underground fashion which wasn’t centered on official recognition from the state. I think it’s similar to Mao’s conception of Peoples War. He defines the process of military struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie as one of overwhelmingly comprised of asymmetrical warfare which doesn’t operate according to conventional warfare and that only in the last instance of this process does asymmetrical warfare transform into conventional warfare. If establishing a formal union were to be a goal it would only come about after a protracted process of workers waging an asymmetrical struggle against the corporation.
Since we are leftists our goal isn’t economism, we are not doing this for “pure and simple unionism” but to further the overall objective of establishing workers control in the US. We have limited time and energy, why waste it on compromises that might have more “buy in” among a larger base of the masses at the expense of advocating for positions that will address the fundamental issues of the capitalist mode of production? The overwhelming majority of US history and the workers’ movement has been dominated by reformism. We have too little time to spend trying to dance around that issue for the sake of maybe building broader alliances with liberals and social democrats. We have to push hard and propagandize among workers in conjunction with material struggles to build revolutionary class consciousness and present what sort of demands and what sort of struggle will actually build an independent working-class power.
D: As unapologetic communists, you must face a lot of push back on ideological grounds. What has the response been from workers about your politics and what has the response been from the wider community?
T: In my experience, especially as someone growing up in Appalachia and the South, reactionary ideas are hegemonic. The bourgeoisie has been very effective in establishing and reproducing the various ideological state apparatuses that perpetuate these ideas among the masses and the working class. So we have always been in a position where these buzzwords like communism and socialism create a knee jerk reaction among the people to immediately dismiss the term despite not even understanding the concept, moreso a caricature of the ideas and history of communism and socialism (which is partly because of the bad practices of various socialist and communist leaders and parties around the world).
I think if you can describe what these terms mean without using the buzzwords you find workers agree with you. It’s not to hide our politics, but to present them in a way that workers identify with and associate something positive with vs the shorthand terms that have been so loaded for so long. This is why I advocate using the terms “workers power” and “workers control”. Workers are always pissed off at bosses largely because they recognize they do nothing while we make things function or do the building, it’s a class instinct to see the unfairness of these capitalist social relations, what we have had a terrible time doing historically as the Left is offering a viable alternative to the capitalist logic which encourages workers to compete against one another and seek to move up the ranks from worker to boss.
Right now our efforts at agitating workers have been successful on the basis of pointing out the contradictions and exploitation between Target Corporation and Target workers. We basically are trying to “red pill” from the Left in online spaces, such as these giant facebook groups where workers go to gripe about conditions. We aren’t saying “communist revolution now!”, we are saying “these corporate CEOs are leeches who make record profits and live lives of luxury off our backs by creating unstable and inconsistent scheduling of hours, and cutting costs at our expense so they don’t have to invest in the workers – including healthcare and other benefits, we need to fight back, use the strike, and ultimately take over the workplace”. People are still unsure of what “workers control” looks like and we haven’t really developed a practical vision of what that would look like in the context of Target. It’s easier to say what it won’t or shouldn’t look like vs what it would and that’s something our core needs to think more about and develop. Again, we are still in the beginning phases of all this and we still need to work on developing an explicit strategy based on our politics, which we can then transmit through a national newsletter and mass digital communication like facebook groups.
D: So what you’re saying is that you don’t hide your politics but you lead with approachable ways to talk about them?
T: Ideally, yes, but we do have to be more explicit about that, which is why our survey project is so crucial to this objective because we are going to draw out the communist essence of the workers’ demands to present back to them that our material interests as workers are the abolition of our exploitation.
D: Going back to how your organizing has been received, what has Target’s response been?
T: Ever since our first strike action, they have done a complete 180 in terms of how aggressive they respond to our efforts. After we finished our first strike in my hometown the management at the store waged a heavy campaign to intimidate and threaten workers. The thing is we never called for forming a union, we had two demands, fire the boss and recognize our independent workers’ committee to handle all grievances between the workers and management. In our minds, we never believed we would win the second demand, but moreso were trying to propagate the idea to coworkers of the need for worker organization and worker control on the shopfloor. Target ran a typical anti-union campaign, which was funny in a way since we weren’t actually calling for a union, they would have captive audience meetings where they would tell workers not to sign union authorization cards, they even were trying to use the commentary on our facebook page as indicative of how shady we were, they tried to portray us as “outsiders”, they even told workers to create a hostile work environment for us. Unfortunately, it did get too hostile for our other salter and they quit. We held a few “know your labor rights” meetings that we invited coworkers to and had the privileged workers (more hours, benefits, and stability) who were colluding with the supervisors to come to disrupt our meetings. It made things lively, to say the least.
I remember the time we were putting out a store newsletter and one of the supervisors got in my face yelling at me about how I didn’t use proper Chicago style citations and that using the raised fist symbol was “cultural appropriation”. I think it was a good example of how it doesn’t matter if one identifies as a liberal or leftist but what material position one assumes in the production process. We have plenty of “progressive” supervisors but when they are faced with the threat of independent worker action they change their tune and show they side with the corporation.
But ever since we filed charges with the NLRB and won our case reaching a settlement which Target agrees to not violate our rights and threaten us they have taken a totally hands-off approach. Our last strike action at another Baltimore store we had total leeway in terms of being on their premises with workers and community supporters swarming the main entrance of the store. They haven’t even tried to push us away from the entrances like they did during our first strike.
Granted it makes the most sense for Target Corp to basically ignore us as if we are not a problem or threat because the retaliation would only bolster our cause and raise our profile. They don’t want to make us martyrs but want to wait us out and hope we run out of steam, lose interest and move on like most workers do in the service sector. Now if we can actually turn a corner in our efforts and have qualitative growth in terms of presence and effect with large-scale actions their current approach is bound to change. We also have to recognize the conditions right now with formal full employment, labor shortages across industries, and an economy not stuck in a recession are all favorable for us workers. This won’t last forever and when the next recession hits we may be looking at mass layoffs again, we need to be prepared for that moment when the winds shift.
D: How are you preparing for that shift?
T: Well the first step is acknowledging the problem, that’s about where we are at. But I think this is where my local organizing with New River Workers Power has the most chance at intervening on something like that. We have to be saturated in our local communities. It’s a lot to ask workers who are unorganized and have no sense of communist strategy to not only organize themselves on the job but within the community around other fronts like housing. But in some hypothetical situation where a local layoff was to occur, we would like to be in the position of being able to mobilize local working-class neighborhoods on behalf of their neighbors who may be the ones facing a layoff. I think it’s something that we should be trying to realize even outside the context of a layoff but in regards to any struggle, we may have on the job or in the community. If we are saturated in our locales we should be able to mobilize more than just our immediate coworkers on behalf of another worker. That’s partly one of our primary tasks as leftists, is rebuilding an infrastructure and culture of solidarity among the working class beyond just a single industry. We want to organize the whole class, not just one sector, not just one location, but the class in general, and we are trying to do all that both locally where I live and with Target Workers Unite to engage in the same process but work outwards from each Target store in other communities vs what we initially did by starting from the outside of the store via our tenant organizing which led to infiltrating the store.
D: What does saturation look like in practice? What kind of organizing are you doing beyond the shop floor?
T: Saturation would mean we have red bases established all over a given locale, on the job, in the schools, in the neighborhoods, any front which workers deal with on a daily basis.
NRWP has been pretty consumed with our New River Tenants Union project, and that is one way we are trying to use our networks on the neighborhoods as jumping-off points for future labor struggles. By building up our contacts we find out where people work, we discuss with them their workplace conditions and their labor rights and what they could potentially do to change it, but because we are so focused on waging struggles with slumlords. Currently, those jump-off points are on the back burner until we can expand our capacity and resources. The flipside to this is that I make it known to my coworkers we have a tenants union and because of that we now have coworkers reaching out and wanting to get involved with our local housing struggle. Operating on both fronts helps enrich our knowledge and ability to more easily build red bases and a red network among workers both locally and through Target Workers Unite.
D: So you’re combining the struggle against the landlord class with the struggle against capital? What led you to begin that approach?
T: Well we started with housing when I launched NRWP and ended up doing labor organizing as a response to the barriers that emerged from trying to organize around tenant issues. They are both strongly connected fronts, you could say that about a lot of different fronts as well, such as mass transit and jobs, or jobs and schools, but starting from the housing front does offer similar benefits that the labor front offers, a concentration of workers in a physical space, a strong dividing line between workers and their store managers and property managers/slumlords, it creates the conditions in which we can step in as militants to trigger a process of political socialization and organizing against these class enemies of workers.
Forgive me for this tangent, but going back to the issue of the bourgeoisie and their ability to establish ideological hegemony in society, one of our tasks is politicizing these spaces workers occupy. One of the tasks of liberalism as a political ideology and blueprint for the political-economic structuring of society is to depoliticize all spaces, to remove and deny the friend/enemy distinction or at least redirect it on the basis of nation or maybe more reactionary variants that apply it on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc. By us organizing on these fronts and presenting our demands based on the material interests of workers we are repoliticizing these spaces by affirming what the bourgeoisie and their liberalism works to deny – that the enemy is lives among us on the basis of class.
D: No need to apologize, I think your insight here is really useful and important. How do you politicize the struggle concretely? Are you holding reading groups on communist theory or sharing leftist media with your less educated members?
T: Political education is some of the hardest work to do. I’ve always struggled with trying to find a method that is digestible and approachable to the average worker, which isn’t texted based. We had a lot of debates and fights over this very question in my prior left groups and on what basis do you recruit workers, do you apply a sort of vanguardist position that if a worker won’t or can’t read a several hundred-page book of theory should we be orientating to them? Do we just want the advanced? How do we define the advanced among the working class? Is being able to read high-level theory part of that definition? There’s also the other end of the spectrum on this question which shifts the focus from being able to basically be a theoretician to downplaying the theory. Communists that have had vibrant revolutionary movements had to have effective popular education programs and I think that does entail having an oral or visual-based approach to pedagogy, even in our time where workers have higher literacy rates and more education than prior generations of workers. I think verbal agitation and some written propaganda have been our primary means of doing this, also propaganda of the deed – like our strikes. We have to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the political crowd – who usually default to a conception of politics which is still within the tradition of liberalism where all political action is seen emanating from the voting booths and the parties. We are trying to redefine what politics even is to workers and the masses by showing through action and prioritizing their struggles vs expecting them to subordinate themselves to the whims of middle-class liberals and capitalists – which is why workers are largely “apathetic” when it comes to what they view as politics as usual.
D: Besides strikes are there any other examples of “propaganda of the deed” NRWP has done?
T: We’ve done anti-fascist organizing, a lot of low-level activity that is more centered on mutual aid efforts, like getting repairs for working-class tenants from local slumlords, writing up and sharing exposés on certain slumlords. We’ve also been pushing back against the local municipalities that have been working with the State of Virginia to pass more restrictive measures on our ability to picket, protest, and assemble under the guise of “public safety”, using Charlottesville and nazis as a justification for these measures. Local liberal groups, like the now-defunct SURJ chapter, were working with local municipal officials and cops to justify these measures as if these authorities are here to “protect the community”. We’ve agitated a bit around police militarization, state surveillance and the collaboration between local PDs and the Department of Homeland security, working together to spy on even non-threatening liberal groups. We want to show people how the local government is part and parcel of the federal government and that even though they formally will never announce workers as the enemy they will disguise it under the rhetoric of “anti-terrorism”.
D: Can you expound on your mutual aid efforts? Does it mainly involve organizing for concessions from landlords or do you do any direct service work?
T: We’ve been slowly expanding efforts, first we started with repairs, and now we have branched off into other efforts like helping tenants move from one unit to another, court-watching with tenants, mowing lawns for tenants who face long-grass fees and are unable to cut their grass, cookouts, fundraisers, we are now talking with tenants about starting a women’s auxiliary, you start to build relationships with folks and you end up helping them in a lot of little ways and they even can help you, it really builds a sense of community.
D: What role do women have in your organization currently?
T: Women are at least half of our membership/leadership and have played leading roles in our efforts from the very first struggle we initiated. I feel like the most enthusiasm and energy are coming from working-class women and in my experience women tend to be the ones who are more interested and motivated in what we are doing or trying to do than men, maybe there is a stronger sense of empathy and connection for women than men and if that’s true, it’s definitely because of patriarchy.
D: Would you say that feminism informs the outlook of your analysis personally? Or the analysis of NRWP?
T: Most definitely, it’s not a coincidence we’ve centered the struggles of working-class women in our efforts. I think it’s hard to say there is a formal organizational analysis of feminism as NRWP, we still are trying to work that theory and pedagogy thing out, but I think we all have a base level understanding of triple oppression and how that constitutes the working class. And again if you look at revolutionary movements you see working-class women having a huge role in the movements. Because of that additional form of oppression on the basis of gender, the desire to fightback is even greater.
D: So with regard to triple oppression, how would you situate the struggle against white supremacy and for black and brown liberation in your organizing? Can you give any specific examples of how NRWP has fought this struggle?
T: Sexual harassment was a big focus of our first strike, but that boss was also racist too and we made it a point to include testimonies of workers witnessing his racist actions towards third-party Latino cleaning crews. TWU’s second strike was primarily on the basis of racism by the Target bosses in Baltimore. Through our housing work, we have supported Black working-class families who had to live in unsafe and unhealthy living conditions and also experienced homelessness. Through our anti-fascist efforts, we have rallied white male workers on behalf of our POC workers when pressing for a local Nazi to be banned from our store. There are a lot of ways in which we can show and build solidarity as white workers with fellow workers who are POC. We do push back on anyone who may say racist things, but there hasn’t been an instance of racism emerging in our organizing spaces with fellow workers. We have to be careful how to press this issue, our core in NRWP understands white supremacy as a structural feature to the US, but within our mass fronts we have to utilize moments where instances of racism could occur. We’ve purposefully said things to potentially trigger some contacts we might suspect hold racist beliefs, like challenging the narrative about the Confederacy in the Civil War or what even the character of the Civil War was, but no one has ever come at us for it, other than the Nazis we already know about and work against. We’ve also attempted to build some sense of internationalism with the international students who come to our local college. Internationalism is definitely a part of the remedy to white supremacy.
D: Is NRWP majority white?
D: What efforts are you making to more accurately represent the demographics of Virginia?
T: We live in Appalachia, which historically is disproportionately white, even higher than the national average. In our county, the Black population was at its highest proportionately to white people during slavery. Even before slavery was abolished the state of Virginia forced any free Black person to leave the state, you can see in recent history when miscegenation laws were still in effect these race laws in the 20th century still forced Black people to leave the state unless they complied with segregation. I think this is in large part why our county’s Black population is tiny. There has been an influx of Latino workers in the area, but because none of us can speak Spanish we have a communication barrier. We have had our materials translated in the past and have distributed them at the one or two Latino stores in our area, but the language barrier is a problem. Because of the local college, we now have a larger Chinese population than Black population and have worked to make inroads on that effort as well. The working class is diverse and even though we have a disproportionate amount of white people here we find the most diversity (outside of the college campus) is in working-class housing. I think it’s a matter of expanding our outreach and contacts. As things develop and we have more capacity and resources I think we can spend more time and effort on a popular education of what white supremacy even is, and why it’s crucial for white workers to know.
D: How about in TWU more generally? Would you say that it accurately reflects the demographics of the places it’s present in?
T: Well we know the majority of Target workers are women and think we have good representation in the group. We do have several POC working-class women in our network, but we will hopefully be able to see from the results of our survey what that racial composition of the total workforce is as well, right now we are unsure. But the issue of race hasn’t presented itself as a problem in the group yet. Our last Target strike had the most amount of workers out on strike and they were all Black, in fact, that store committee is all Black. I would say in any city we would have a presence in the composition of the workers are going to skew more towards people of color. It’s something we will have to pay more attention to as we grow, but because we do right by all workers involved in our efforts we aren’t having any internal issues as of yet.
D: That’s really heartening to hear. Often leftist groups assume that having the right ideas is sufficient and it seems like your organization backs theirs up with practice. Are there any things you would say that TWU or NRWP has failed on?
T: I think we have a problem of informalism, as much as we feel the need to not set up and create formal, legal entities – like a union – we are struggling without a more developed system of administration in regards to both groups. This is something we are trying to work on as we speak, but part of that task is training up workers to assume these roles as mental laborers that we otherwise aren’t used to. There’s momentum in all of this and we are continually building, but it always feels like I’m trying to play catch up. We got plenty of work to do.
D: If our readers wanted to get involved in that work how would they do so?
T: go to Targetworkersunite.com and fill out our “get involved” form, we’ll be in touch.
D: Awesome, I might just do that myself.
I really want to thank you for taking the time to be interviewed and giving us an insight into your work. It’s inspiring to see people take class struggle on and power back into their own hands.