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Workers aiming to unionize place a bull's-eye on Target

By Anne D’Innocenzio

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 2:26 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

NEW YORK » Target is having labor pains.

Until recently the Minneapolis-based discounter largely had avoided the labor disputes and public relations challenges that have plagued Walmart, the world's largest retailer. But now Target could face the same union opposition as its much bigger rival.

Target, which will open its fourth Hawaii store in Hilo on Wednesday and its fifth next July in Kailua, had its first union election in two decades in June amid allegations by workers of skimpy wages and reduced hours at a Valley Stream, N.Y., store. The measure ultimately failed after Target suggested to workers that the store might not survive if they vote to unionize. But the labor dispute — and Target's handling of it — is widely seen as a precursor to a bubbling national battle between Target and labor groups similar to the one Walmart has been locked in for at least a decade.

"There is no question that this is becoming a hostile, caustic battle of wills," says Don Schroeder, a Mintz Levin labor attorney who has represented corporations in labor battles for 18 years.

While Wal-Mart Stores Inc. remains the biggest target for labor groups as the largest U.S. private employer, unions are increasingly setting their sights on the nation's No. 3 retailer as it adds locations across the country and aggressively expands into the heavily unionized grocery business. In addition to New York, more labor disputes are expected in big cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis, where Target is based and is the second-largest employer behind the Mayo Clinic. The opposition is coming at a particularly vulnerable time for Target, which is grappling with slack sales growth as shoppers are pulling back amid the painfully slow economic recovery.

Already, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union's Local 1500 New York chapter, which organized the election in the Valley Stream store, intends to contest the election results and ask the government to order a new one because it says Target intimidated workers. It also plans to fight to get all 26 stores in the New York area unionized.

And the UFCW's local 1189 in St. Paul, Minn., near Minneapolis, is using the New York election as an impetus to recharge its campaign, which failed before because it didn't collect enough votes. The chapter is organizing a group of people to go door to door to almost 2,000 Target workers in four stores. It's also planning to reach out to UFCW's local Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle chapters to enlist them to join the battle.

"I was inspired. Once we heard that Local 1500 had been building toward an election, we thought we better ramp it up," said Bernie Hesse, director of special projects at UFCW's St. Paul chapter.

"We have been intrigued with what a national campaign may look like."

Target Corp. declined to comment on its strategies to counter the escalating labor fight, but spokeswoman Molly Snyder said the company does not intimidate workers or have any "companywide efforts to restructure or reduce hours."

"Our emphasis is on creating a workplace environment where our team members don't want or need union representation," Snyder said. "Target works to create an environment of mutual trust between Target and our team members — an environment that promotes listening, responding to concerns of team members and always giving honest feedback."

Labor disputes are new for Target, which has used its marketing prowess to become the discount industry's darling by offering trendy products while Walmart built its no-frills business by offering everyday low prices.

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