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Barbara Farfan

Union Activity in the U.S. Retail Industry Is a Significant Trend - Biggest Issues Motivating Retail Employees in Unionization Efforts Are Not Pay or Work Conditions (TGT, AAPL, WMT, M)

By June 29, 2011

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The word of the month in the U.S. retail industry is "union." Since unions are not all that prevalent in the retail industry, the number and kinds of union activities that occurred with major retail chains in June might be enough to constitute a significant trend, or at least foreshadow one. Union activities that were seen in the U.S. retail industry in the past month include:

    - The Target (TGT) corporation successfully thwarted a unionization effort in one of its stores in Valley Stream, New York when workers voted against unionization in a 137-85 vote.

    - A San Francisco Apple (AAPL) retail store employee launched a very public campaign to organize an Apple retail store union. The employee, Cory Moll, claims to have employees at 100 stores interested in unionization and has acquired 675 supporters on his Apple Retail Workers Union Facebook page in less than a month.

    - A contract was finally negotiated between Macy's (M)and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) after approximately 4,000 Macy's employees at four New York unionized store locations had voted to strike.

    - One hundred employees in the newly-formed, quasi-unionized OUR Wal-Mart (WMT) organization converged on Bentonville, AK headquarters to ask for "respect" with wages, hours, and general treatment by management. Reportedly the OUR Wal-Mart organization has "thousands" of members who are paying $5 per month in hopes that it will help their workplace conditions improve. The OUR Wal-Mart group is also being joined, supported and sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers, Domestic Workers United, Jobs With Justice, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Without any major employee safety concerns, the retail industry has just not been an easy place for unions to get a strong foothold. There's a lot of union talk, but not a lot of successful union organization.

Union representation is found mostly in supermarket and grocery stores, and confined to specific departments and groups within those supermarket locations and chains. Retail union representation does exist in non-supermarket stores and chains, but the number is so small as to be insignificant. So, what's up with all this recent retail union activity? More specifically, why are retail employees wanting or needing union representation in the U.S. retail industry in 2011?

To say that employees wouldn't have a need or desire for a union if they were happy employees is to state the well-worn obvious. I seriously doubt that any senior-level retail executive would publicly dispute this. But for some reason there are some retail leaders who just can't be motivated by the benefits of workplace satisfaction. And these same leaders are apparently not deterred by the consequences of workplace dissatisfaction either. So union prevention common sense makes sense, but it's not as "common" as you would think it would be to retail leaders in the 21st century.

So here's one small piece of evidence in support of the happy-workers-prevent-unionization theory. To look at a list of companies that have been named the Best Retail Companies to Work For in the past six years is to look at a list of retail workplaces that are union-free. Certainly there is a larger list of union-free retail workplaces, but these "best workplace" companies are also largely free of union activities, threats, grassroots movements, and votes. These are workplaces that are also free of barely-legal union-busting bullying because these are the workplaces where leaders would rather use resources to pull for employee satisfaction instead of using resources to fight against employee dissatisfaction.

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But it's not like retail executives aren't aware of the evidence already. When Target Stores dodged the union vote bullet last week in New York, the senior vice president for Target's Northeast region was quoted as saying, "It has always been our goal to have a culture where our team members don't want or need union representation." This is the right sentiment, but in practical reality, Target management's view of what kind of conditions make a union unnecessary and Target employees' view of the same are not the same (in at least one Target store location).

In a typical workplace that is ripe for unionization, management thinks the conditions for employees are perfectly acceptable. Employees don't accept management's view of "acceptable." But really, "conditions" are not the issue at all.

The desire to unionize at Target or Apple or any other retail company is not just about pay. Almost every employee at every level in the U.S. retail industry - including grossly overpaid retail CEOs - want and think they deserve more pay.

Unionization is also not just about the "better" - better schedules, better benefits, better conditions, better whatever - most employees can think of many improvements that would make their workplace better for the workforce in general and for themselves in particular. Pay, benefits, schedules, etc. are the commonly cited issues behind the most recent retail unionization efforts, but they are not the real issues either.

The real issue is powerlessness.

If employees who have a desire for improvements feel powerless to make their position known, or if they feel hopeless that any (positive) change will happen as a result of their opinions or efforts, then the hopeless and helpless huddled masses are going to look for someone or something to give them their power back. The Teamsters, the UFCW, and the RWDSU are happy to step up with a promise to provide that power.

For example, the biggest issues for pro-union Apple store employees are the inability to have a say about their own schedules, and the fear of retaliation if they dare to complain about anything. The battle cry of the OUR Wal-Mart members is not centered on a living wage, but rather, it is "Respect!" Unacceptable external conditions are the excuse for unionization, but the inner drive for feeling like you have some authority over your work life is the real motivating force that gives momentum to a unionization drive. Empowerment is what workers are willing to pay annual dues to obtain.

So the morale of the retail union story for the retail employer is... If you're ambivalent about employee dissatisfaction but you want to avoid unionization just the same, then you'll need to at least create the illusion that employee feedback is heard and that it matters. Powerlessness does have a tipping point. (The citizens of Lebanon, Egypt and North Africa have provided us with definitive evidence of that.) And when that tipping point is reached at even one retail store location, the path out of powerlessness will lead your employees directly to Revenge City, after a brief stopover in Angerville.

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By the time employees are casting ballots in a union vote, the workplace has already eroded into a culture of Us vs. Them. And no matter which way the vote goes, the contentious energy will be perpetuated. Certainly retail leaders can't believe that this is the kind of environment that fosters employee productivity.

Wouldn't it be easier if retail leaders let go of their end of the rope by choice instead of by force?

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