Frey's pick for city attorney starred in hokey anti-union Target video

This 2011 video warning employees of the Minneapolis company not to union up is worth a watch for the hokey synth alone.

This 2011 video warning employees of the Minneapolis company not to union up is worth a watch for the hokey synth alone. YouTube

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has announced his new pick for city attorney, replacing the position’s temporary steward, Erik Nilsson.

His candidate is Jim Rowader, a Target executive who's been with the company since 1994, and served as its veep and general counsel for employee and labor relations since 2010.

Rowader also serves on a number of diversity and equity boards – including the Hispanic National Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Justice Research Center.

Frey praised Rowader’s “decades of work to make the legal system more fair and inclusive,” and his “expertise leading complex labor relations strategy.” 

“Complex” is certainly one word for Rowader’s past involvement with labor. Another would be... corporate.

Target has done some okay things for workers’ groups in the past – including negotiating directly with workers’ rights advocates over a 2015 scheduling ordinance, and agreeing to Take Action Minnesota’s Ban the Box campaign, which removed check boxes asking if an applicant had a criminal record from applications in 2013.

But Target has also been famously and flagrantly anti-union for years.

Back in 2011, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union was doing its best to organize Target workers in New York. Had they succeeded, they would have become the first of Target’s nearly 1,900 stores to unionize. The company wasn’t keen to let that happen. So along came this little employee training video.

In this cheerful, synthesizer-heavy employee video, a couple of people in red polo shirts explain to new Target employees that union reps may approach them with invitations to join, and that this is essentially a trap designed to bolster the union’s membership and steal your money.

“A union is not a charity, it’s not a club, and it’s not a part of the government. A union is a business. A business that has to take in money to survive. But it doesn’t have any products to sell. All it has are memberships to sell.”

Around the 12-minute mark, Rowader appears, introduces himself, and gives Target’s take on unions:

“Experience has shown us that after running the facts, Target team members agree union representation is not in their best interest," he said. "In fact, not one group of Target team members today has chosen to be represented by a union. Ultimately, what works for Target and our team members is the ability to meet challenges, solve issues, and grow the business together, without the interference of a union or other third parties. Third party representation trying to divide us is contrary to our philosophy and beliefs.”

Stilted? Yes. Hokey? A li’l bit. But as John Logan, an associate professor of labor and employment at San Francisco State University told the Guardian at the time, these union-bashing videos are more effective than you might think.

“Employers can fire people for no reason,” he said. “We shouldn’t underestimate the degree people are fearful about what employers say.”

That hasn't stopped workers from asking for better pay and hours. In an interview with the New York Times that year, Rowader maintained that Target’s wages and benefits were “above the market” for comparable retail jobs, and, overall, had not declined – although individuals might have been working fewer hours than they were used to.

When workers again tried to organize in 2018, the company’s statement to City Pages was that it already had systems in place to hear from employees, and “[did] not believe a union intermediary would improve that process in any way.”

Earlier this year, multiple Target workers told the Guardian that although wages had been going up, their hours had been going down, while some positions in stockrooms had been scaled back or eliminated to the bare bones. Target denied their claims, saying its hundreds of thousands of team members were “satisfied” with their pay, benefits, and experiences.

Be that as it may, an employee advocacy group called Target Workers Unite asked 500 workers in over 380 stores about their lives and work conditions, and only 12.7 percent said they could survive on wages from Target alone.

Some 56 percent reported struggling to afford food while working there. More than half reported that management had instructed them not to discuss wages with other workers. Nearly 42 percent said they’d been reprimanded for complaining about workplace issues, either at the store or on social media.

Rowader couldn't be reached for comment on this story. A public hearing on his appointment is supposed to take place on August 6, followed by deciding vote by the Minneapolis City Council a week later.