This guest column of Labor Pains is written by the Target Workers Unite! an independent initiative run by rank and file Target team members.
Introductory comments by a TWU member
Here’s our account on how one specific NGO undermined our efforts to organize as rank and file workers, the important thing to remember is that this is systemic, it’s not just a matter of individual’s actions, these legal structures force a conservatism within non profits which keep workers subordinate.
“Statement on the United For Respect organization”
By Target Workers Unite
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 sales floor 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 shop floor 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 signaled 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.
TWU website: https://targetworkersunite.com