ACORN, union join forces to seek fair treatment of Target workers

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When Super Target opens along University Avenue in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood July 29, the store’s retail employees likely will not have union representation. That means most workers will not earn a living wage, and fewer still will be able to afford health insurance for their families.

On Monday, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789 joined grassroots non-profit Minnesota ACORN in an effort to improve the quality of retail jobs at the new Super Target, which will open just blocks away from two union grocers – Cub Foods and Rainbow Foods – along University.

Target Corporation is notoriously anti-union, and keeping labor costs down may enable the company to undercut its Midway competitors. Local 789 is worried that if Cub and Rainbow lose shoppers, UFCW members may lose their jobs.

“For every person that shops at Super Target, that’s one less person shopping at a union grocer,” Local 789 organizer Shirley Muelken said. “As a community member, I don’t want to see layoffs at the places where there are good, living-wage jobs.”

How much better are the jobs at a union grocery store than at a Super Target?

According to Muelken, part-time employees with a union contract earn up to $13.10 per hour, and full-time employees – who are guaranteed 40 hours per week – earn between $15 and $22 per hour, plus $3 per hour for health benefits.

Target refuses to release its wage structure, but Muelken felt confident it does not compare favorably. “I challenge Target to (prove) their full-time workers earn what our part-timers do,” she said.

To protect union jobs in the retail sector, Local 789 and ACORN plan to take their message into the neighborhoods that surround the new Super Target site. But given the state of the economy, door-to-door canvassers face an uphill battle.

“People are desperate for work, and Target knows that,” Brandon Nessen, Minnesota ACORN’s head organizer, said. “People need jobs, and they need jobs that are in the community.”

Doug Mork, Local 789 organizing director, said retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have been successful in selling a “bill of goods” to consumers and workers when it comes to their low expectations of employment in the sector.

What’s more, Target has carefully cultivated a benevolent image – especially among Minnesotans – by contributing generously to charitable causes.

But does that entitle Target to pay wages that force its employees to rely on charity?

“We stress that with the store opening, Target is going to make a lot of money off of our community,” said DeVora Denham, a canvasser with ACORN. “So the definitely need to give back to the community as far as their employees are concerned.”

Another canvasser, Michelle Johnson, said she tells people this: “We’re not trying to close Target down, we’re just trying to improve it.”

Already, Denham, Johnson and their fellow door-to-door canvassers have gathered 371 signatures on a petition urging Super Target to pay a living wage.

In addition, they have developed a list of 71 contacts who either used to work in Target or know someone who currently does. Nessen said the database will be useful in communicating with Target employees and in monitoring Target’s hiring practices, wages and benefits.

“Target has been ruthless in its tactics to avoid paying living-wage jobs,” Nessen said. “ACORN and the UFCW are going to continue pressing for living-wage jobs and accountability for corporations that want to move into the city.”

Michael Moore edits the St. Paul Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly. Visit the Assembly’s website, www.stpaulunions.org