Unions Target Retail Workers

Discussion
Jun 20, 2011
Tom Ryan

With Macy’s last week avoiding a strike and Target winning an election that would have unionized its first store in the U.S., is the pressure to form unions at retail on the rise?

On June 16, Macy’s reached a tentative contract agreement with some 4,000 of its New York-area workers to avoid its first strike since 1972. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed but wages, benefits, hours and even restrictions on paid sick leave were issues on the negotiating table.

In what many considered a more notable development, workers at a Target store in Valley Stream, N.Y., voted – 137 to 85 – against forming a union on June 17. It would have been the first time workers have organized at the nation’s second-largest retailer.

Besides wages and benefits, union officials particularly focused on hours. The union said its typical contracts guarantee part-time workers 16 to 20 hours a week at a time while Target only schedules some for 10 hours. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Patrick Purcell, a spokesman with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500, also noted that the irregular work schedules often meant veteran employees worked 10 or 15 hours a week while newer workers logged 35 hours or more.

Target executives countered that a union could not guarantee better pay or benefits and that the organization only wanted their dues. They also asserted that the union would make work rules more rigid and make it harder for Target to compete.

The union vowed to petition for a reelection and planned to push a "Target: Democracy" campaign at the chain’s other New York-area stores that would be coordinated with other union locals in major U.S. cities.

The vote came at a time when union membership has seen a steady decline over the last few decades. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union members make up 4.7 percent of U.S. retail workers, cites Reuters. Retail’s high turnover rate is said to make it particularly difficult to organize them.

But union organizers claim, and some retail observers agree, that increased activism among workers reflects growing frustration at not getting better contracts despite improving retail figures, Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner told Reuters. Median hourly wages for retail salespeople have dropped 3 percent since 2006 adjusted for inflation and many workers face shrinking hours and rising benefit costs.

"Workers are seeing their hours getting cut and their take-home pay, while basic costs for gas and food are soaring," Burt Flickinger III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group, told the AP. "They’re increasingly frustrated."

Discussion Questions: Do you see unions becoming more or less attractive to retail employees in the near future? Does a labor organizing drive, regardless of the vote outcome, suggest that a retailer or particular store needs to make some changes?

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10 Comments on "Unions Target Retail Workers"


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Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Unions have almost always appeared attractive to the employees. What the unions fail to consider is whether the retailer can thrive under a union system. Probably the wrong time for unions to be pushing when unemployment is as high as it is.

No – unions push to unionize because that is their reason for being, not because it indicates a retailer needs to make changes in its employment practices. The sweatshop and abusive practices days are pretty well over in the US. When they do crop up, court cases tend to be more effective remedies than unions.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
9 years 10 months ago

Unions will become more attractive to retail employees only if their propaganda about benefits needles deeper into people’s skin than does management’s.

The objectives of the two groups are not totally compatible. Unions want higher wages, tougher work rules and more hours plus dues for their own survival. Target and other retail stores need flexibility to be price competitive and to win and retain customers. Price is one – not the only one though – of the key components in that process and flexiblity with the work load is an ally. Unions need dues to support their representative efforts in pushing for more hours, higher wages and also heavy political persuasion.

The current unionizing activity does not seem to suggest retail stores make key changes. Conversely, since the fastest growing retailers today are non-union, are unionized operators such as Supervalu, Safeway, Kroger and others benefitting by being unionized?

David Livingston
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

If the workers are seeing their hours cut now wait until they get a union — they will probably see their jobs cut altogether. Workers know that the union is just a short term solution to their issues. Union organizing becomes an unprofitable and unattractive distraction for both retailers and workers. Discount store retail is designed to be a high turnover job. That’s why veteran workers are seeing their hours cut. If retail jobs become too lucrative, turnover will go too far down and retailers end up having to give raises and pay benefits. It’s great to say this in the employee handbook and for press releases but in reality, discount store retailers want a certain amount of turnover. The best way to turnover veteran workers is to cut their hours. Unions would get in the way of this practice and it would eat into corporate profits. That would be bad for us shareholders.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 10 months ago
The answer to the first part of this question depends on what the “near future” looks like. Retail employees are — in the main — underpaid, undertrained, under promoted and living on few or no benefits. Worse than that they are viewed as fungible pieces of a much larger puzzle, easily replaced when they complain. This isn’t true of all retail workers but in far too many cases the phrases “valued employees,” “associates” and “partners” are just code words for floor fodder that can be easily replaced when their performance sub-optimizes. After all — the logic goes — there is a line of people out there ready to take their jobs without complaint. What could change the current situation? One of two scenarios come to mind. Either (a) the economy improves to the point that there isn’t an army of replacement workers ready to leap into the retail breach or (b) the economy falls into a tailspin causing employers to become even greedier and less sensitive (a stretch in many cases) and making unions all… Read more »
Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
9 years 10 months ago

Membership Organizations that are successful in providing their members with tangible benefits grow.

Union membership is, and has been, declining from their 20th century peak.

I don’t see this changing, in any industry including retail, now or in the future.

Dennis Serbu
Guest
Dennis Serbu
9 years 10 months ago

Market forces and talent determine wages/benefits in a real economy. I don’t see recruiters bringing prospective employees in at gunpoint and forcing them to work. When unions artificially force wages and benefits up and out of sync with what is reasonable then cuts need to be made for a company to be profitable and competitive. That means either fewer employees doing more, with less customer service, or a substandard product.

To the question of unions, they are only interested in their own perpetuity. They offer very little in terms of value added unless you consider fewer people with more benefits as the goal.

If you have talent, and show stewardship, I am going to do what I can to keep you. If you are just a warm body holding a position and doing the minimum to get by, then you need a union.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

In my past, our company purchased a vertically integrated retail organization that had unions in its manufacturing and distribution organizations. Before the deal closed one of the unions went on strike. New to the “union world” we hired a consultant. One of his pieces of advice was to remember that individuals don’t’ vote for a union, they vote against management. I believe this to be as true today as it was 20 years ago when I first heard it.

James Tenser
Guest
9 years 10 months ago
I’m well aware this unionization is a flashpoint issue for many in our industry. I’m also deeply concerned about declining wage rates and their impact upon our national economic health. Since the retail industry employs so many, this is an area where we must take collective responsibility. A couple of days ago, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich broadcast a remarkable, succinct summary of our present economic challenges: http://youtu.be/JTzMqm2TwgE. A key element of his argument centers on how middle class workers have turned on each other in the face of declining prosperity. I fear that retail’s union controversies are symptomatic of this malaise. Regrettably, traditional union tactics and missions have grown less relevant in our society. Opponents find it relatively easy to sow mistrust among workers; and dues are very hard to sacrifice when wages are already declining and union leaders can be portrayed as focused on preserving power. I wonder, in the era of Twitter revolutions – is there a new “un-union” movement worth trying, one that re-focuses on the dignity and well being… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

As an ex-union member in retail, I believed 25 years ago and still believe today that retail (not all industries, though) unions have outlived their usefulness. Many non-union retailers offer the same pay and benefits as union shops.

Roger Saunders
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

The prevailing trend for private sector employees has been to reject union membership. This direction is not likely to reverse course, unless…the U.S. Government gets into retail…but let’s not give Washington D.C. any extra ideas. They are over-matched as it is.

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