Next week, about 250 workers at a Target store just outside New York City will decide if they want to unionize. If the union drive succeeds, the store will become the first in Target history to be unionized.
When it comes to a labor fight, it's hard to imagine a more difficult battleground than metro New York. It's a heavily unionized, left-leaning area. Unions and their political allies can cause real problems for a retailer. Wal-Mart has been relentlessly demonized in the city and hasn't managed to open a single store in the city so far.
Target, on the other hand, has ten stores in New York City, and a lot of admirers. Minnesota-based store chain attracts celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld to store openings. The comic was at a star-studded celebration marking the opening of a Target last year in Harlem.
But Target is drawing increasing attention — and venom — from the grocery workers union and its allies. Patrick Purcell is a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500, which is trying to unionize workers at the Target store in Valley Stream just outside of Queens. He said Target has been waging an aggressive anti-union campaign, even suggesting the Valley Stream store could close if workers vote in a union.
"When it comes to their treatment of workers and their respect for workers' rights to organize, they really are no different than a Wal-Mart," Purcell said.
At the Valley Stream store, the leading complaints are wages and hours. Purcell said Target may hire people at $9.50 an hour — more than $2 above the minimum wage — but it gives raises of as little as 7 or 8 cents an hour. He said Target limits many employees at the store to as few as 5 hours a week to reduce the number of employees qualifying for the company health plan.
"I would be shocked if 15 percent of these workers are eligible for health insurance," he said.
The union said it's interested in organizing other stores in the area as well.
Target declined interview requests for this story, but in a written response, Target said it's focused on creating an environment where workers don't want or need a union.
The retailer said it is meeting with Valley Stream employees to make its case against the union but adhering to all applicable laws. The company says the union misrepresents what's going on at the store, and that employees average 24 hours of work a week and most qualify for health insurance.
The retailer said workers are encouraged to seek additional hours, and said it strives to ensure employee pay and benefits align with or exceed those of other area retailers.
The company is avoiding barbed language in the public relations war with the union, but that's not stopping others in the area who side with the company, including retail consultant Howard Davidowitz.
"Wherever the unions have arrived, productivity and everything else have gone right into the tank, and those businesses have become totally non-competitive," Davidowitz said.
At the heart of this battle is food, specifically the grocery business, where union wages can reach $20 an hour.
That's the view of Greg David, former long-time editor of Crain's New York Business and now directs the graduate business and economics reporting program at the City University of New York.
Unions have already seen Wal-Mart, with its non-union workforce, transform itself into the country's biggest grocer. David said that is a big reason they've battled to keep Wal-Mart out of New York. He said unions are really worried about Target's expanding grocery business.
"The more Target expands its entry into the food business, the more it does become a threat to the supermarket unions and the unionized stores where their members work," David said.
David said the unions fear the wages and benefits they've won at the bargaining table won't be sustainable if Target takes a bite of the Big Apple's grocery business.
The union vote is June 17 at the Valley Stream Target store. Results are expected late that night or the next morning and will be closely watched by all the big-box retailers that have so far kept unions out of their stores.