By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
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A DISPLAY CASE in Target's Fridley warehouse celebrates the long-term employees who work there. With photographs and names of senior workers, it's the kind of feel-good, team-building tactic the Dayton-Hudson Corp., which owns Target, takes pride in. But when these same honored employees retire on a minuscule pension, the good will tends to wear thin.
The meager pension package (about $420 a month, according to employees) is just one of the problems warehouse hands are complaining about. Others include an average medical plan at above-average cost; flex time that can put them on the clock for more than 60 hours a week--until after the Christmas rush, when hours plummet to less than 20; and raises that were just 2.7 percent this year, about a third of the state average. Against the backdrop of wildly successful earnings for Dayton-Hudson, workers at Minnesota's retail giant have begun an organizing campaign to sign workers up with the Teamsters.
The Fridley warehouse is a mammoth operation, supplying Target products to around 60 stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North and South Dakota, and eastern Montana. About 600 workers are employed there. Some of the old-timers honored on the bulletin board remember the last unionizing attempt 20 years ago. The Teamsters won a narrow victory, but Dayton-Hudson tied the union up with legal delays for several years. That organizing drive fizzled. This time around, things look a little better for the union. The successful resolution of the Teamsters/UPS strike gives organizers hope. And with profits high at Target--which accounts for some 75 percent of Dayton-Hudson's earnings--workers feel the time is right to have their grievances aired.
"It's moving along very well," says Bruce Melhound, an organizer with Local 970. Although Melhound wouldn't say how many cards to certify a union vote have been signed, a Target employee on the organizing committee says the vote could come as soon as Halloween. Until then, Target management is doing all it can to ensure that the union fails, the organizers say. Target spokesperson Gail Dorn declined to comment on any specific issues until a petition to vote has been filed, saying only that "we feel [unionization] is not necessary."
But the company's actions suggest they take the drive seriously: When word of the movement got out, the warehouse general manager was replaced by a vice president, Jeri Swierzewski, who immediately launched an anti-organizing campaign consisting of meetings with employees and literature urging workers to "put an end to [the Teamsters'] distractions, self-serving agendas, and false hopes by just telling them NO!" In the past, these tactics and worse ones have succeeded in sinking unions at Dayton-Hudson shops. Even in union strongholds like Michigan, management has a reputation of being ruthlessly anti-union. "Management has a lot of people scared," one pro-union employee says, adding that since they're currently staffing up for Christmas, many workers are still on probation. Still, organizers are hopeful. "People look at UPS as an example of what can happen when you stick together," says Melhound. And because Target, like UPS, depends on massive, centralized distribution centers, and because of Minnesota's low unemployment rate, Target would be vulnerable to union demands.
Which Dayton-Hudson would probably be able to meet. In August, the company announced second-quarter profits of $365 million on sales of $6.3 billion. Profits from Target alone were $274 million. "[CEO] Bob Ulrich got a 200 percent raise after the value of the company stock doubled," says one employee. "We got a 2.7 percent raise--35 cents this year or something like that. And for Christmas, I got a box of candy."
Although they're optimistic the warehouse workers will vote to join the Teamsters, organizers have one more trump card: Mark Dayton's gubernatorial campaign. Dayton owns "a couple voting shares; enough to get an invitation to the shareholders' meeting"; his share of the $1 billion the Dayton heirs inherited comes from the department-store empire. Insiders hope their union drive becomes campaign fodder. If that happens, Dayton insists he'll join the picket line.
"I stood on the picket line a decade ago with the Teamsters at a Target site. I was strongly on the side of the Teamsters and proud to be on the same platform," Dayton says, adding that on labor issues, his grandfather's company "doesn't appear to be any better than most companies of its type. They're guilty of some of these very despicable practices that are tearing the social fabric of the country."