Unionization Is Starting to Spread Across the Retail Sector

Inspired by the recent wave of union campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon, retail workers at major chains like Target are launching new organizing drives across the United States.

Workers at about a half-dozen Target stores across the country are reported to have “active but early stage campaigns” to unionize. (TaarusEmerald / Wikimedia Commons)

“Because we’re the best, that makes those of us at Target a target ourselves,” says the woman in a 2011 Target corporate video about unions. Noting that the retailer has entered the heavily unionized grocery industry while resisting unionization, the speakers lay out the stakes for the company, offering up a standard fare of anti-union talking points distinguished only by the appearance of a particularly villainous-looking company lawyer.

At the time, the retailer was facing a union drive at one of its Long Island stores, under the aegis of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents grocery workers across the country and was hoping to launch a multistore organizing campaign at Target. That attempt ultimately failed, with workers in Long Island voting 137-85 against unionization.

“Not one group of team members, not one anywhere in the whole company, has ever decided that they need a union,” says the man toward the end of the video.

That is still true, but the company is facing the possibility that it won’t be for long. On May 10, workers at a Target in Christiansburg, Virginia, filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requesting a union election after management declined to voluntarily recognize the union. The workers in Christiansburg are organizing with the New River Valley General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The Christiansburg workers are in touch with their counterparts at other Target locations. Adam Ryan, an employee at the Christiansburg Target, told the New Republic that workers at about a half-dozen stores have “active but early stage campaigns.” These efforts are taking place under the umbrella organization Target Workers Unite.

At the Christiansburg Target, the collective effort began in 2017, when a boss’s sexual harassment of workers led to a strike that resulted in the company investigating and ultimately removing the manager. Management resistance to workers’ desire to wear masks during the pandemic led to another action in 2020, a sick-out in which around two hundred workers across several Target locations took part. Per Ryan, the Christiansburg worker-organizer, thirty-three of the store’s roughly one hundred workers had signed union-authorization cards at the time of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filing. In January, Target Workers Unite revealed that the company was rolling out new anti-union training guidelines for management. The material lists red-flag behaviors by workers for which managers should look out as signs of a possible union campaign, such as “small gatherings,” “expressions of negative sentiment,” and “talking with others before or after shifts in the parking lot.”

Independent unionism is seeing a nascent uptick in the wake of the unionization of JFK8, an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), an independent union. Workers at an Amazon Fresh grocery store in Seattle are organizing their own union, Amazon Workers United. At Trader Joe’s, concerns about health and safety precautions pervaded the workforce during the first year of the pandemic, leading some workers to speak with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), but no store ever filed for an election. Now, employees at a Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts, too, have formed an independent union, Trader Joe’s United. Those workers say health and safety concerns remain and that the company has slashed pay and benefits, too.

The efforts to organize retail are spreading rapidly, in more traditional organizational forms as well. Workers at a Manhattan REI location voted overwhelmingly to unionize with RWDSU in March of this year. Three Apple stores have filed for union elections in recent weeks — one each in Atlanta, New York City, and Towson, Maryland. At the Apple stores, several unions are involved: the Atlanta workers are organizing with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the New York workers with Workers United, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate, and the Towson store with the support of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). Apple has responded by retaining union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson. And, of course, there is the union drive at Starbucks with Starbucks Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU, which has now won NLRB elections at more than seventy stores, with many more votes to come.

What explains the uptick? First, there’s the matter of the tight labor market, reflected in the still-high quit rate among workers who are leaving miserable jobs in favor of better ones. Several rounds of stimulus in 2020–21, culminating in the American Rescue Plan Act, put cash in workers’ hands and heated up the labor market, undoubtedly playing a big role in these shifts, as David Dayen at the American Prospect has argued.

Relatedly, working retail during a pandemic has influenced employees’ views. Workers at company after company say the experience brought their coworkers closer together as they shouldered the increased duties of enforcing social distancing measures — this also meant increased stress, with customers frequently rebelling against such codes, and it is not hard to find stories of retail employees getting punched in the face for simply trying to do their job. And this on top of their conscription into the collective experience of being deemed “essential,” told they should take on the risks of their work for the sake of the broader public, all of which adds up to a situation ripe for organizing.

In the labor world, some call such spread “contagion”: when workers see an organizing campaign succeed at a company like the one where they’re employed, they’re apt to consider whether their grievances could also be addressed through collective action. The Starbucks union in particular is driving such thinking in the retail and service sector. What was previously seen as impossible is now proving doable: at store after store, Starbucks workers are forming organizing committees, taking advice from workers at stores that have already unionized, and filing for elections. Their willingness to strike at a number of stores suggests serious confidence, and workers at other companies consistently cite the Starbucks union as an inspiration.

The number of companies where the contagion has spread remains minuscule compared to those where it has not, but if the wave grows, with more Targets, more Trader Joe’s, more as-yet-unnamed corporations, there is no saying where it could lead.