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.”
(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: firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
Some may have the impression that Target Workers Unite has been a project of the non-profit corporation known as United For Respect (formerly Organization United for Respect at Walmart or OUR Walmart). We rank and file Target workers issue this statement to clarify the relationship between Target Workers Unite and United For Respect (U4R).
OUR FIRST STRIKE
Target Workers Unite can find its origins in our first strike action in Christiansburg, Virginia at Target Store 1292. Local workers came together in August 2017 to strike against our ex-boss Daniel Butler, who had been engaging in sexual harassment and other reactionary behaviors towards Target workers. There was no formal relation between ourselves as rank and file Target workers and any union or non-profit organization. It was entirely an independent initiative created and led by workers committed to worker power in our community. Our first strike action was a success. The abusive boss was fired, and we won our case before the National Labor Relations Board, a case concerning illegal threats and intimidation of Target workers for going on strike and sustaining workplace organizing after the strike action in August 2017.
WORKING WITH U4R
In early 2018, staff from United For Respect contacted Target workers at Store 1292, inviting us to join and build a united front of retail workers — at least this is how it was presented to us. When first sitting down with U4R organizers and staff there were preliminary discussions about what organizing Target workers would look like. We had an idea of what that should be:
Establish a national newsletter and website for Target workers as a means to centralize our grievances and transmit a strategy and advocacy for workers to organize via shopfloor worker committees.
Avoid a traditional unionization campaign not centered on an NLRB union election process, instead using the right to concerted activity in the private sector to bring change directly on the shopfloor, building an independent worker organization to force concessions from management in any Target store. We refer to this orientation as SOLIDARITY UNIONISM
U4R told us that we were of like minds and that these were areas for collaboration.
Working in good faith with U4R staff in 2018, our objective was a Target worker organizing committee with the resources to help recruit Target workers across the country. These efforts led to the first strike action in Baltimore. Workers from Target Store 1265 wanted to hold their racist and abusive management accountable, just as we had at Store 1292. We recounted our strike action and strategy to our fellow workers, and they too wanted to follow suit. Initially it seemed as if U4R was on board with this, flying out a paid organizer to help create a store committee and to plan for a strike action. But as we approached the projected strike date, the staff from U4R increasingly hesitated and discouraged us Target workers. They also tipped off store management by prematurely filing several NLRB and EEOC charges without consulting Target workers in the organizing committee. This allowed the corporation to preempt our efforts and contain disruption through an internal investigation that removed a few scapegoats. During this time, Target workers spent a tremendous amount of time networking with local community groups, unions, and media, building support for the impending strike action. We were cajoled by the U4R staff and directors to postpone or stop our strike action on at least three occasions, making us look unprofessional and unable to commit to plans made with these community groups in Baltimore. We believe the actions of U4R seriously diminished the turnout for our picket line and press coverage of the strike action.
We pressed for a multiday strike action based on our prior strike and its success, but instead we were encouraged to do a short, symbolic one hour strike action. We were also encouraged to do a salesfloor disruption, action that is unprotected activity and grounds for legitimate discipline and/or termination by Target Corporation. We expressed reservations about this proposed disruption, since we knew we had no legal protection to do so, but we believed following through would establish that we are willing to work with U4R and collaborate towards bigger and better efforts. We were also told not to mention U4R to media or portray ourselves as connected in any way with U4R during this strike action. We finally followed through with this strike action, despite the setbacks from U4R staff, and it helped to galvanize community and worker support for subsequent strike actions in Baltimore. But to add insult to injury, after we Target workers managed to garner press coverage of our strike action at Store 1265 all on our own, U4R decided to use the media we produced in their own propaganda. This was tremendously upsetting to the Target workers at 1265. When we requested to discuss this issue via a letter of petition, U4R ignored our letter. This would not be the last time Target workers faced indifference and silence from U4R staff.
As this was happening, we crafted the first draft of a national Target newsletter by Target workers, as was agreed to by U4R staff. Once again we were discouraged, this time from printing or distributing the newsletter. Instead we were promoted to create a secret facebook group where the contents of the newsletter could be contained which would isolate its distribution. The U4R staff have repeatedly shown a conservative orientation toward Target workers doing anything other than follow the predetermined agenda made by staff without our consultation, without an open discussion of strategy and tactics for organizing Target workers. We were told on multiple occasions that having U4R associate with anything we did, whether it was a newsletter or a strike action, could jeopardize the legal status of U4R, fearing that Target would file an injunction against them. This is a fair concern. We are not reckless and do not promote reckless behavior, but U4R on the other hand has repeatedly encouraged Target workers to engage in reckless actions that have no legal protection and could easily result in the termination of Target workers.
Towards the end of 2018, U4R began to make it apparent that they had little interest in actually organizing Target workers to do anything substantial on the shopfloor. Instead it was apparent that U4R’s conception of organizing was to essentially turn workers into lobbyists, encouraging us to take action anywhere but the shopfloor. From a conservative viewpoint this makes sense, as it has the least amount of legal risk, but building real worker power is inherently risky and requires sacrifice that can only be accomplished by workers on the shopfloor. This strategy of fighting for policy change is one that takes the struggle out of the hands of workers and puts it in the hands of NGOs, legal professionals, and politicians.
The purpose of our collaboration with U4R was to enhance our efforts to organize Target workers and to build real independent working class organization that didn’t fall into the politics-as-usual routine of a traditional unionization drive or symbolic and impotent strike actions that we have seen with the SEIU-funded “Fight For $15” campaign. Unfortunately, we discovered that U4R does not move beyond these ineffectual forms of labor organizing but instead perpetuates them.
THE CREATION OF TARGET WORKERS UNITE
We, the workers of Target, were extremely disillusioned with these repeated promises, backpedaling, and changes of mind. We were always thanked for “being flexible” and for understanding that U4R was in a “period of transition.” Frankly, we’ve never known U4R to not be in a “period of transition,” an apparent excuse to justify backdoor maneuvering that undermines our rank and file efforts. This is why we launched Target Workers Unite.
We concluded that U4R had no real intention to organize Target workers, especially when they ended their facilitated weekly committee calls for Target workers. We didn’t want our efforts to die. We have spent too much of our own time and money to stop just because an NGO lost interest. Over the course of the winter of 2018 we rebuilt momentum. Through our own efforts and persistence Target workers have reached out to us to help them fight back against their bosses. This is how our latest strike action in Baltimore developed at Store 1541. These workers called us personally asking for our help and when we presented the issue to U4R in the hopes of gathering more support we got silence once more, not even helping us to signal boost the strike action on their social media channels.
After launching Target Workers Unite, U4R staff again expressed interest in organizing Target workers. They asked to have access to the contacts we gathered. We agreed. Though we had reservations, we still hoped to create a mutually beneficial relationship between ourselves as Target workers and U4R, considering their resources and staffing. This led to the launch of the Target worker survey project. We crafted the questions, spent our own resources to boost the survey, getting results over a period of months with little-to-no resources provided by U4R. As we promoted the survey to Target workers across the country, we found U4R had edited our survey without consulting us. Though we presented the survey as anonymous to calm fears that Target workers would be identified by Target Corporation, U4R decided to ask for names, phone numbers, and other contact information, removing any sense of anonymity for target workers. We received angry responses from Target workers about being spammed with emails, texts, and phone calls from U4R staff. When we asked why this was done without our approval, we were given the vague answer “to build power,” but it appears that U4R’s only concern is to spam workers, souring relations with other Target workers we now have to work to overcome. Our power and organization hinges upon trust, but U4R has repeatedly destroyed trust among workers.
It has been a difficult process for us to gather enough survey responses to have any claim of accuracy. We spent hundreds of hours reaching out to Target workers and hundreds of our own dollars to deliver the survey to other Target workers across the country. But before we could reach the necessary threshold for our survey, U4R organizers, without consulting the Target workers leading the project, called for the formation of a survey committee to process the results, appointed a non-Target worker to lead the committee, and removed us as administrators from the Facebook group that we had established. This was the final straw for us. It was evident that U4R-paid organizers were working to appropriate our efforts and contacts only to isolate and contain the workers who have been leading these efforts from day one. We sent a message to all Target contacts in our social media network, including the Facebook group, providing a short summary of U4R transgressions and a warning to other Target workers about what to expect when working with U4R. Not long after, we were banned from all U4R social media networks and lost access to our own survey. U4R paid organizers then sent a message claiming the survey was their property and that as “an act of good faith” they would transfer ownership to us, the Target workers. They portrayed us as reckless. They said that their strategy for a fair work week policy, in partnership with the NGO Fair Workweek Initiative — another front for the Center For Popular Democracy — would deliver qualitative change, even though their strategy only amounts to a media campaign and a few staged actions at Target Corporate offices.
The U4R strategy is based on the idea that they can pressure Target Corporation representatives into meeting with a few token workers. They want to present their fair workweek policy to persuade the corporation to adopt it without any real worker power on the shopfloor, without any real leverage to force concessions from the corporation. This appears to be a delusional strategy that has no concept of how demands are won by workers, but it only appears delusional if we fail to recognize the real aim of U4R and other NGOs and unions. They don’t want worker power, only the appearance of worker power mediated by paid staff reliant on philanthropists and foundations, which want nothing more than the “humane” exploitation of workers, not genuine worker power rooted on the shopfloor or the abolition of worker exploitation. Should we really be surprised that U4R undermines rank and file worker initiatives when their own directors have a history in the labor movement of stopping such rank and file initiatives at the behest of labor bureaucrats?
At U4R events, they give the impression that U4R is the reason wages have been raised at Walmart, but they only tell half-truths about these claims. They don’t mention that the wage increases at Walmart were paid for by laying off thousands of workers. If they claim victory for the wage increase, should they not also celebrate the job losses? A real sign of power and leverage for workers would entail a wage increase without mass layoffs, but we know that U4R doesn’t have that kind of power, and they aren’t working to construct it. At their gatherings they advocate for the “small circle group,” which is the closest they come to promoting shopfloor organizing, but according to U4R, a small circle group can be anything and can exist anywhere, a facebook group, a facebook chat, workers scattered across the country and not situated within a particular store. It is a completely hollow slogan. This kind of organizing hasn’t happened anywhere in their Walmart worker campaign. If they actually wanted shopfloor small circles or worker committees, they would have to spend the time and effort to actually train workers to be organizers on the shopfloor. They haven’t. Instead they take the workers out of the workplace to campaign and speak out on conditions everywhere but the shopfloor. They take the workers away from their community and coworkers, the place where workers can actually have influence and build working class power.
WHERE WE’RE COMING FROM
We as Target Workers Unite do not claim to have built the sort of leverage necessary to win major concessions for Target workers nationally. We aspire to this power, and we are actively working towards this, but we can at least be honest about our capacities and intentions, claiming no easy victories. We understand that building leverage and power always stems from direct shopfloor action in our stores. We must build parallel organization by workers against each store management, who are counter-organizing workers to carry out the corporate agenda. We must teach our fellow workers that we and the bosses have no common interest, that our interest is worker democracy and worker control on the shopfloor. We must determine how things operate and are run at our stores, so that we can serve our communities. U4R and other NGOs and mainstream unions have no interest in this, instead perpetuating worker subordination to our corporate overlords — albeit mediated by the NGOs and unions. We must build genuine worker power that features working class independence from these bureaucratic institutions and their corporatism. This will only happen through militant struggle by the workers ourselves. The professionals won’t lead us to the promised land; only we can liberate ourselves.
We as Target Workers Unite are skeptical of non-profit organizations and labor unions. They have a history of selling out workers. They prefer to cut deals with our corporate overlords for the sake of keeping the peace, for protecting the positions of well-paid labor bureaucrats who control these labor unions and non-profits, and for maintaining working relations with corporate executives. This phenomenon has come to be known as BUSINESS UNIONISM. These labor organizations function as an extension of control over workers for the interests of the bosses. These practices have resulted in decades of decline for the working class, who are forced into this new normal by taking on multiple part-time, precarious service sector jobs featuring unstable schedules, little-to-no employee benefits — including healthcare — and the various social problems that result from such conditions, including lack of access to good housing, education, and many other quality of life factors. Our current situation and its development was not a coincidence but a concerted effort by our corporate overlords and their lackeys in government and in the organizations that claim to represent workers. This decades-long process is what academics refer to as NEOLIBERALISM, a response to the economic recession of the 1970’s that signalled an end to the economic period of growth following World War II. During this period our corporate overlords attacked the standards of living for working class people through aggressive government and corporate policies that eroded the power of the working class and organized labor. They eliminated pensions, forcing workers to gamble their retirement on the stock market via 401Ks; busted unions, both in the public and private sector; cut contract deals with union leadership that tied the hands of workers with no strike clauses and two-tier systems; shrank the labor force by increasing labor productivity through intensified work expectations, the automation of production processes; and outsourced jobs to countries with more easily-exploited workers. All these policies were enacted in the private and public spheres with the aid of Democrat and Republican politicians, as well as the union leadership. This is still the case today; we still live in the era of NEOLIBERALISM and its labor strategy of BUSINESS UNIONISM. Our corporate overlords could not have achieved this without the complicity of the leadership of unions and labor organizations. Neoliberalism is not exclusive to the US; it is a global strategy and orientation used by capitalists, unions, and their governments to maximize profits by sucking the blood of workers until we die — and which is driving human civilization to the brink of collapse via ecocide.
This statement is to serve as a testament and warning about the continued practices of BUSINESS UNIONISM under the era of NEOLIBERALISM from NGOs and unions and their top-down approaches to “organizing” workers. For real change we cannot look to these entities to take us forward, we must look to ourselves as workers and no longer settle for piecemeal reforms, but take the whole thing over.
On Monday, April 15th, Target workers at store 1541 located in Pikesville, Maryland launched a strike to demand Target Corporation fire their abusive store team lead (store manager) Kate Harley. Harley’s abuse entailed creating a hostile work environment where workers were afraid they would be disciplined or fired for petty reasons. Harley’s favoritism is well known among team members at store 1541, workers also live under the threat of constant surveillance as Harley sits in the AP office monitoring workers over the camera system. Along with this team members have seen a drastic cut in their hours, making it impossible to cover costs of living. We’ve even received reports from workers that Harley wouldn’t accommodate pregnant team members and took away their stools so they couldn’t sit down.
As a result, workers marched on the boss to deliver the strike notice. It was upon delivery of the strike notice we received our first and only direct interaction with management or corporate in reference to our demands. After giving notice, workers started the picket line at the store entrance. Unlike our prior strikes in which our rights were violated, management didn’t make any threats to drive us away. We maintained the picket line all the way to April 17th, when workers delivered a return-to-work notice, based on our assessment that Target Corporation was taking the testimonies of worker abuse seriously. Kate Harley had been removed since the start of the strike and there was word an investigation had been opened.
It was to our shock that we found Kate Harley permitted to return as store team lead the day after workers announced the formal end of their strike. Workers took this as a slap in the face by corporate, that they don’t care what’s happening to the rank and file workers in our stores. We responded by assembling a community picket line with Target workers from multiple Target stores and with community supporters. It was a morale boost for team members after seeing Harley return to the job. Harley fled the sales floor when she heard workers and community members at the entrance chanting “Kate Harley has got to go!”.
As things stand now, corporate is conducting an investigation and interviewing team members about their accounts of abuse. We aren’t surprised that Harley wasn’t immediately terminated. In both prior strike actions against racist and sexually-harassing bosses, even they were not immediately terminated, but only after the conclusion of the internal investigation launched by corporate HR. Despite the state of the struggle not resulting in the immediate termination of Harley, this action was a success in several regards.
We showed coworkers we have the right to strike and that we will not be retaliated against for exercising those rights. Not one worker who has gone on strike in our group has been terminated for exercising their rights.
We showed coworkers solidarity and mutual aid are real, their strike fund was a success, all coworkers who went on strike received funds that covered more than their lost wages and many community members refused to shop at the store as we maintained the picket line.
Since we have won multiple NLRB settlements against Target for violating our rights to organize and strike Target has now conceded (for now) over access to space we are entitled to, (such as parking lots, store entrances, the break room, and other non-work areas at the store)
This was the first time Target workers have come together across multiple stores in the Baltimore area to link up and network so we can better support each other in our community. As a result of the strike we’ve had multiple Target workers from other local stores reach out wanting to get involved.
We have to view the struggle at store 1541 moreso as a beginning rather than an end. These team members reached out to us asking for help. We are here to support any Target coworker struggling with the conditions Target Corporation forces on us. All you need is the will to fight back and demand our fair share, we will always be there to step up and help out. We will build worker power one strike at a time and the strikes don’t have to be a majority of team members at a given store to be successful, as we have demonstrated in our prior strikes which have removed abusive bosses from our workplaces.
The “modernization” plan remains one of the most pressing issues affecting team members across stores. This has resulted in shorter hours and increased workloads as our paychecks remain roughly the same or smaller. In order for Target workers to get what we need – such as full benefits and a living wage – we will have to organize and coordinate nationally for mass strikes to force concessions from Target Corporation. The holiday season and the 4th quarter is the most crucial time for the executives and major shareholders to realize profits, a mass strike by Target workers during this time could be a decisive blow if we build enough unity between team members and stores across the country.
For those who feel such action is impossible, we would like to point towards the heroic struggles of our public school teachers across the country under conditions which were entirely unfavorable to them. They were in right-to-work states where state employees have no right to strike, join a union, or engage in collective bargaining, yet they organized through social media and facebook groups outside the normal channels of unions and non-profits, broke the law, got away with it and won their demands. If our teachers in our communities can do this when they have no protected rights to do so, why can’t we as Target team members when we already have more rights and protections than our teachers do?
We know there is a long way to go to organize and mobilize each other to engage in mass strikes and win major concessions from Target, but it’s a process, not a singular event. We have to work up towards larger scale actions by educating and demonstrating to our coworkers that we all can do this as ordinary people. In fact, it’s NECESSARY we do so, because the conditions are only getting worse. Walmart, Amazon, and Target are all competing with one another and using us workers to try to corner the market. No matter which one of these corporations win we are guaranteed workers will lose. We have to reverse this historic trend of degrading conditions for US workers. Our communities are suffering from poverty forced upon us by these same corporations who devalue our work and convince the general public their community members who work these stores don’t deserve to live decent lives and support our families.
We have to get respect and we won’t get it unless we fight for it. We can get our needs met, the money is there, we as the workers make these corporations their profits, we only allow them to keep those profits because we choose to not to demand respect. We hear from many coworkers that they take pride in their work, but what we need is coworkers to take full pride in our work and demand we be fairly compensated for the sacrifices we coworkers make to keep these stores running.
The future is bright, we can move mountains when we come together, build unity with each other and fight together to win respect and dignity for each other. We see what happens when we all operate as individuals and do what corporate and management tells us. We are forced to scramble and compete against one another, to out-hustle one another in the hopes we get a few more scraps, but if we come together and get organized we can make things better for all of us, instead of just a few. Take pride in your labor! Demand nothing less than full benefits and a living wage! It’s the least we are entitled to as the ones who keep these corporations alive! Get involved!
Pikesville, MD: Target team members at store #1541 have returned to work after a two-day strike over abusive treatment perpetrated by Store Team Lead (store manager) Kate Harley. Since Harley has taken over as the new store manager she has created a hostile work environment where team members (TMs) live in fear of intimidation, spying, and retaliation.
Because of the collective action of Pikesville Target team members and their workers committee an investigation has been launched and has resulted in the removal of STL Kate Harley. Team members (TMs) await Target Corporation’s decision to fire STL Harley for her abusive actions towards Pikesville Target team members. TMs still demand respect on the job and the right to a workplace that is hostility-free. TMs also demand zero retaliation on TMs who’ve written testimonies, gone on strike, and united together to form an independent workers committee as protected by the National Labor Relations Act.
Over the past two days team members have witnessed a tremendous outpouring of community support. Many community members refused to cross the picket line and honored our strike and call for a community boycott. Striking Pikesville Target team members also gained new testimonials from current and former team members recounting instances of abuse and labor violations. This included current team members who are pregnant. These team members HAVE NOT been properly accommodated, even having their chairs taken away which they used to take breaks as needed. Another former team member came forward sharing her and other TMs experiences who had been abused, unjustly disciplined, and fired by STL Harley at her last Target store in Colombia, Maryland. The community has also shown solidarity by helping raise funds to recover lost wages for striking Target team members.
Pikesville Target team members and community supporters are ready to take further action to ensure abusive boss Kate Harley is removed from the Pikesville Target store and will remain on standby if Target Corporation does not comply with TMs and the community’s demand to fire Kate Harley and ensure a hostility-free workplace.
Pikesville, MD – Target team members at store #1541 are on strike over disrespect and abuse perpetrated by their Store Team Lead Kate Harley. Since STL Kate has taken over workers are now stressed out both on and off the job because of her conduct, creating a hostile work environment where team members face intimidation, spying, and false accusations by STL Kate.
“Kate has been destroying Target ever since she started here. I come to work everyday stressed and worried if I can pay my bills and maintain my life with this job.”
-Pikesville Target team member Nikolas Mosby
Team members don’t feel they can trust the internal channels Target Corporation provides to hold someone in a position of power like STL Kate accountable for their actions. Team members know that STL Kate and District Manager Ryan are friends, this is a conflict of interest concerning her abuse and disrespect of rank and file team members. These team members have provided multiple testimonies (see below) on the work conditions under STL Kate, they are fed up with this treatment and demand she be fired from Target Corporation immediately!
“She is extremely retaliatory, and will go to any length to get her way. I absolutely do not trust her as a leader, and constantly feel that I am being targeted”
anonymous Pikesville Target team member
Target team members will remain on strike and are enacting a community boycott of Target Store #1541 effective immediately until their demands are met by Target Corporation. We are asking all team members and supporters across the country to show solidarity and call the Target Integrity Hotline to demand Target meet the demands of team members at store 1541!
Call 1-800-541-6838 or send an email to Integrity@Target.com. Target team members are making a huge sacrifice by going on strike, including losing their pay. This time of year is very difficult for team members financially as our hours are slashed, every shift we are scheduled is crucial to cover our costs of living. If you are able please consider making a donation to the strike fund. Stay tuned for more updates on the strike!
We’ve launched our own Target team member survey! Target Corp’s ‘Best Team Survey’ has been seen as ineffective and not truly anonymous for team members to take without fear of being retaliated against for speaking the truth. So team members from across the country have come together to craft our very own rank and file Target team member survey. Please take this survey and share it with your in-store team members! We’ll publish the results to show how Target team members truly feel about the job and what workplace conditions are really like. It’s actually anonymous, we won’t share your personal info with Target Corp or sell it off to third parties. We want the executives and our communities to know what we are dealing with corporate-wide and use these results to help make change and improve conditions for Target team members.
Our fellow Target team member Callie at Store #1265 and her partner are expecting, yet they’re facing a struggle many of us coworkers also share, and that’s access to affordable housing. We’re calling on all Target team members to help out, even if it’s just resharing this story to coworkers, family members and friends. We know this time of year is very tough for team members as Target executives slash hours and increase our workloads. Many of us are scrambling to get enough hours, even picking up yet another part time job to pay the bills and support our families. We will link at the bottom of this page to an online fundraiser to help our fellow team member Callie and her baby secure housing. Please reshare and make a small contribution if you can!
TWU: Callie, how did you all find yourselves without a home?
Callie: Growing up wasn’t the easiest, I was living with my parents who were thousands and thousands of dollars in debt, but they did what they could to provide for me and my siblings. With that being said, I started working around 14 years old and haven’t gone without a job or paycheck since. I started taking care of myself for the most part around then too, and that included paying for my own necessities and bills. As I reached the age of 17 I wasn’t living at home, but staying with friends. I’ve gone from house to house trying to stay afloat for as long as I can, helping out in anyway I could. But as I got older, bills got higher, and harder to pay. I’ve always managed to find a way to get by, but now with a baby on the way, approaching fast at that, there is no more I am able to give. My boyfriend and I do all we can to save and only spend when necessary. This has put the both of us at a standstill, plus with the government shut down currently it’s making it harder to get government assistance and help.
TWU: How much does Target have to do with your financial difficulties?
Callie: Hours are never regular and vary week to week. Some weeks you can have a solid 35-40 hours, but other weeks will plummet to 17-25 when you are supposedly “full-time.” Target has even gone out of their way to change the way they function and now says “no employee is considered full-time.” Even trying to pick up an extra shift here or there only does so much. When you’re sick or have to miss a day they act as if the whole store will come crashing down without you, and this can cost you your job.
TWU: Are they helping you at all during your pregnancy?
Callie: No. I’ve even made requests to be moved from certain areas or have said I’m not able to do certain things anymore and it took me being injured at work and having to file an incident report for them to finally move me. Im lucky me or my unborn baby weren’t injured.
TWU: How will you deal with the issue of pay or lack thereof while on maternity leave?
Callie: I do get 6-8 weeks paid and might be able to apply for an additional 2, but after that there isn’t any pay at all. I had to qualify for this, but they also will only pay me my average amount of hours, which has plummeted since November. About 10 hours to be exact. I wouldn’t necessarily blame Target for the short 6-8 weeks pay entirely, but also the way the United States handles our maternal care. I’m not sure how I will be able to deal with this though. My only solution would be to come back to work as soon as I am fully healed and have someone to watch my child. I don’t know what I would do if I was a single mother in this predicament. My partner is working full-time and it still may not be enough to rely only on his pay check while I’m off.
TWU: Will your partner be able to have any paternity leave?
Callie: At the moment, no. I’m sure he will get some days off to stay with me in the hospital and spend time with the baby and I after she is born, but it is not paid. So he most likely will return to work as soon as she is born.
TWU: Did you know we are one of only three countries in the world without paid maternity leave? Why do you think that is?
Callie: I did actually, which I don’t understand. All mothers and fathers should have the right to take care of their child and be paid while on leave. And a livable income at that. I don’t understand how people expect you to get by without a pay check, especially with a new addition to the family. A newborn baby is very, very expensive.
TWU: How could Target executives help your family through all of this?
Callie: Be more supportive, and lenient on pregnant working mothers. Accommodate their needs, and understand what our bodies are going through. They need to realize there are major, dramatic changes going on some of us have never experienced before. I’m lucky enough to have been in great physical shape before my pregnancy so I wasn’t put on bed rest. I also wasn’t diagnosed with preeclampsia or gestational diabetes due to this, so I was able to work a lot longer then a lot of mothers out there.
TWU: Why do you think they don’t help team members such as yourself?
Callie: It’s all about staying within a budget and getting a bonus at the end of the year. A bonus none of us hard-working employees receive, but maybe a .50 cent raise yearly.
TWU: Do you think Target respects pregnant workers?
Callie: Im not sure about Target as a whole. With my store specifically it depends who your ETL is. Our previous ETL was very accommodating with my pregnant coworkers at the time, letting them sit and take breaks when needed, but now things have changed and I’m not sure if it was for the better.
TWU: What do you think the answer is to this issue of being a pregnant worker who is struggling to find affordable housing and what duty do you think Target executives have to you and other pregnant workers?
Callie: If they were more accommodating and helpful it would help end hunger and homelessness, especially for mothers who work full-time or even part-time, and do everything they can to give back. I wish they did more for us, even if we don’t fall in the middle class or higher. Those of us under the poverty line need help raising our babies too. How do you expect homelessness and hunger to end if no one is willing to help those in need, even when we are doing all we can to provide for ourselves and our children?
Please reshare this story and consider making a small contribution to our fellow team member Callie and her baby here
(editor’s note: we interviewed our fellow Target team member Joseph Viramontez who is a six year veteran with mega backroom skills currently working at Target store #2320 in Dickinson, Texas. Joseph is engaging in protected concerted activity by speaking out on his team’s work conditions and what they want to see changed in-store and corporate-wide)
We heard you and your fellow team members were having trouble with Target Corporation and your in-store management, could you go into more detail about what those problems are?
Joseph V: My entire store’s morale is in the gutter. We have issues with scheduling and communication. Not hours wise, but more of breaking OSHA regulations. Team members are always scheduled in ways where they get no time to rest or it goes completely against their school schedules. Sometimes team members only get four hours in between shifts. As far as communication goes there’s no knowing exactly what we’re supposed to do for the day. Come in during the midday and your morning Lead On Duty will assign tasks, then your Team Lead will give you more. It gets extremely confusing for newer team members and causes a huge mess in our back room. And don’t even get me started on the poor leadership at my store. It’s so bad we’re almost a month behind in freight right now. Thousands in toys just sitting in the back.
How long have you been a Target team member?
Joseph V: I have been a team member for just about six years. I’ve worked every piece concerning Logistics. Currently I am the Senior SFS TM and I have been in SFS for three years.
So you’ve been around long enough to see how things have developed and changed form when you first started, what are some of those changes you’ve noticed over the years?
Joseph V: As time has gone by I’ve noticed how little the company cares for it’s employees. They want them to constantly do more with less resources while not seeing the stress they put on their employees. It’s almost as if we’re in a toxic relationship with the company, and I say that because management will often gaslight their best assets for things already out of their control. The more the store “modernizes” the worse it gets.
Do you think Target protects bad bosses?
Joseph V: Yes. In a straight and simple answer. I’ve had racist and sexist bosses. Even when an entire team has gone to report it, nothing is done. Instead they get promotions, putting them in better situations to get their way and manipulate team members until eventually no one questions their authority. All because that leadership is “brand”.
You’ve said that you and coworkers have tried to through the internal channels Target provides to no avail, what do you think is the answer to getting these issues addressed?
Joseph V: We need to finally step up and say something. We have this yearly best team survey that is supposed to help corporate get an inside feel for each team, but instead of following up with the team members, corporate will always go to leadership who will say what corporate wants to hear versus what’s needed to be said. We don’t have a voice, and we need one. A single message that says we’re through being mistreated. We love the jobs we do, otherwise we wouldn’t have stayed for so long! There’s still hope even now when it’s at it’s worst.
What do you think needs to happen to make Target jobs good jobs?
Joseph V: The jobs aren’t that bad in my experience. It’s the “leadership”. They all want to be corporate pleasers vs doing the things to make the company more successful. They’re trying so hard to be the BEST everything store. They forget that happier team members work harder. Help us and we help you! We matter. We’re the biggest moving part. And if we all stopped one day then they would see. Hopefully things don’t have to go that far. We just want to be heard. We want to be taken care of.