On Tuesday, a new retail store joined the recent frenzy of union activity: Workers at a Target in Christiansburg, Virginia, filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.
The workers behind the drive at that location hope to be the first of many for the retail chain. Other stores are working in concert with these organizers on following suit, although none are ready yet to call their own elections. Adam Ryan, one of the lead organizers at Target Workers Unite—the umbrella organization for Target employees seeking to unionize—and the Christiansburg store, estimates that workers at about a half-dozen Target stores currently have active but early stage campaigns.
Their unionization push comes amid a wave of unionizing at other retail companies. Last month, the independent Amazon Labor Union won its union election at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York (although a subsequent vote at another nearby warehouse failed). Workers at an REI in Manhattan voted to unionize in March. Union elections have been called at Apple stores in Atlanta and Baltimore. And about 60 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since December, with dozens more elections filed.
Many of these campaigns have important things in common. These are the kind of low-wage, service-sector workers who seemed so impossible to unionize for so long. Amazon and Starbucks workers aren’t bringing in organizers from big, established unions, but instead workers are leading the way themselves. And they’re going store by store, location by location. It was long thought that such a campaign couldn’t work. “What people didn’t recognize is the contagion factor,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Target Workers Unite is hoping to instigate exactly that kind of national spread.
The campaign to unionize Target in Christiansburg goes back to at least 2017, when Ryan heard about an abusive boss who was sexually harassing employees at his current store. He had recently moved back to the town, where he grew up, when he was unable to afford living in Richmond while trying to get a start as an organizer and “just got stuck,” he said. So while there he decided to get a job at the store with the intention of organizing the 100 or so employees, and he helped organize a weeklong strike just months later. The action resulted in Target opening an investigation into the abusive boss and removing him from the store.
Ryan hoped it would “demonstrate to people you can do this and you’re not going to get fired,” he said. The idea spread: Workers at a store in Baltimore later contacted him and asked for help organizing a similar strike against their own abusive boss. In Ryan’s Christiansburg store, workers who were at first hostile to the strike later used the same tactic to force the company to ban a customer who was harassing women working to unload trucks.
Ryan wasn’t interested, at first, in forming a formal union and began instead working with a nonprofit that was explicitly focused on helping workers organize without the official process of unionization. While it came with resources, he felt hemmed in by the partnership, particularly because the nonprofit was wary of strikes. He and his fellow organizers broke off to form Target Workers Unite in late 2018.
Then the pandemic hit, in early 2020. Target management tried to prevent employees from wearing masks in stores, and workers had to fight for other protections. Ryan and his fellow organizers helped pull off a sick-out on May 1, 2020, and over 200 workers across different stores took part, which he believes is the first ever such action in the company’s history. He credits it for pushing the company to institute a $2-per-hour hazard pay and better protections.
On Tuesday, Ryan filed paperwork with the NLRB requesting to hold an election of workers at the store and served notice to management. He told me that he’s already collected 33 authorization cards from his colleagues—approximately the same level at which the Amazon drive went public.
Andrew Stacey was a participant in the 2020 sick-out. He took a seasonal job at an Indianapolis Target three years ago, seeking better pay than at the car rental agency he had been working for, and he got hired permanently after the season. He was recruited by a fellow employee to organize at his store his first week. While he had done some political work before, this was his first brush with labor organizing.
There are things Stacey likes about the job. Working in the grocery section, he’s gotten to know regular customers who come in every week. But it’s been harrowing in the pandemic. After taking some company-sanctioned time off to protect his health in the summer of 2020, he returned to find that the company wasn’t doing what it had promised, he said. Management stopped counting customers to keep numbers capped. Nothing was done to prevent crowding in certain sections of the store. They weren’t regularly cleaning surfaces. They didn’t send out notifications for every employee who got sick. He got Covid-19 in November 2021; he’s almost sure from work. With his existing asthma, he got pretty sick for two weeks. “I never felt protected or safe during the pandemic,” he said. “Target taking as many shortcuts as they could to get around a pandemic that was materially affecting our lives didn’t sit right with most of us.”
A Target worker in Lynchburg, Virginia, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, started working at her store just as the pandemic began. She said the company didn’t force customers to wear masks and didn’t mandate vaccinations. She had never been involved in organizing, either, nor did she know much about unions before. But now she’s one of the core organizers in her store. “I just saw how Target was treating me and all the other workers,” she said. “Seeing how little they’re paying compared to the amount of work they give us; the ridiculous expectations.”
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the company said, “At Target, our team members are at the heart of our strategy and success, and we have a deep commitment to listening to our team and creating an environment of mutual trust where every team member’s voice matters.”
The pandemic proved “the company is just willing to leave us at risk of getting sick so long as business is operating, and there needs to be some sort of defense network in response to that,” Ryan said. Workers watched as their employers called them essential and then treated them as disposable. “Coming out of the pandemic, workers are now way more sympathetic to this idea of unionizing than before,” he said. Inflation, too, is leading to unrest, as pay increases fail to keep up with the cost of living. “I’ve never seen this level of interest or sympathy for these ideas since I’ve been trying to organize.”
Despite Ryan’s initial hesitancy about forming a union, he and his co-workers now see it as the way to codify their achievements, “so if any one of us as original core organizers leave for any reason it’s not going to dissolve with us,” he said, as well as to create a formal structure for things like dues. They’re working with the Industrial Workers of the World and plan to make Target Workers Unite a subsidiary of IWW, which they hope will allow them to issue union cards at any store that wants to hold an election.
Now the wave of unionization across retail has spurred them on even further. When Stacey talks to new hires about forming a union, they immediately understand what he’s talking about, thanks to the campaigns at Starbucks, Amazon, and REI. “It’s definitely motivating,” the Lynchburg worker said. “It can give some hope that one day it’ll be possible for Target to do the same.”
As with their counterparts at Amazon and Starbucks, the Target workers are clear that they’re using a different model than that of big industrial unions like the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, or SEIU. The Amazon Labor Union is completely independent, and while Starbucks workers are mostly organizing with Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU, the union is letting workers themselves do the organizing, acting instead as a resource.
Ryan tells his co-workers that IWW won’t send people in from headquarters who tell them what to do. “A lot of unions are very top down,” he said. “If you set up a local, you have your own autonomy and can determine your own path.” Plus, he can promise that their dues won’t be put toward political donations.
Corporate anti-union campaigns usually exploit the idea that a union is a third party that only serves to come into a workplace, take workers’ dues, and then refuse to listen to them. Such a campaign is “less effective,” said Peter Ikeler, associate professor at SUNY Old Westbury, “when it’s pretty clear to workers on the front line that this is not some big anonymous outside organization; these are my co-workers.” When Ryan’s co-workers tell him they don’t want a union, “I’ll say, ‘It’s just us. What are we?’” he said. “We’re working together, that’s essentially what a union is; you can call it whatever you want.”
Still, there are daunting hurdles in their way. Frequent turnover poses a challenge. Many Target workers who get frustrated with the job just leave rather than stay and try to change the conditions. When Ikeler surveyed Target workers about a decade ago, many said they didn’t see their jobs as long-term positions. “They build a workforce overwhelmingly around contingent, precarious, transient workers,” Ikeler said.
The other challenge they face is not having the institutional heft behind them that they would with a larger union. There are no paid organizers helping them, so it’s up to workers—who are already scant on time and resources—to keep it going. “Even if they do win, the company has a massive legal team to challenge them and stall and try and wait them out,” noted Stephanie Luce, professor of labor studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Target has already begun training managers to help squash nascent union efforts, and a union vote in 2011 at a store in New York failed. The workers won’t have the same legal firepower at their side, nor as many resources for things such as strike funds. Even if they win recognition, the hardest part may be finding a way to force the company to the table to negotiate a contract. Workers feeling ownership of a union campaign “is absolutely required, but it is not sufficient,” said Bronfenbrenner, the labor researcher at Cornell. “You also have to have the power to get the employer to settle a contract. So you need solidarity and you need power.”
Ryan hopes that the company’s sensitivity to public sentiment and bad P.R. will help them push it to come to the negotiating table. “I don’t think they want to be seen as hostile to workers,” he said. “That works in our favor.” The organizers might even go to customers to help them pressure the company. And, of course, they’ve already shown a willingness to engage in strikes.
Still, the environment has unquestionably shifted. With a tight labor market, workers have less fear of quitting or even of being fired. “Workers have a bit more power and a lot more confidence,” Luce said. Historically, Ikeler said, it’s these kinds of labor markets, where workers have so much leverage, that present the greatest windows of opportunity for unionizing. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” Luce said.
The goal for Target organizers, eventually, is to organize stores across the country under the Target Workers Unite banner. The Lynchburg worker is currently tallying how many of her co-workers will vote “yes” if she calls a union election. Stacey is “still building,” he said, but there are about a half-dozen people in his core organizing committee, and he hopes to be able to start the election process soon. His co-workers haven’t voiced opposition to a union yet; at most, they want to wait and see what happens.
As with the Starbucks campaign, Ryan hopes he’s the first domino that will send countless others cascading in its wake. “I think people are waiting for something to be the catalyst or the trigger that pops this off,” he said. Now that he’s done it, hopefully, “they’ll want to jump on it and do it as well.”
“If you get one spark,” he said, “that sets the prairie fire.”
This article has been updated to include comment from Target.