Target Bends to Labor, Tells Contractors to Meet With Unions

Target is introducing a potentially precedent-setting policy imposing new rules on companies it hires to clean its stores in the Twin Cities, the retail giant’s hometown. It’s a step forward for union-backed efforts to force major corporations to raise standards for workers they don’t directly employ.

According to a Target memo that the labor group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha provided to Businessweek, Target’s Twin Cities janitorial vendors will be required not only to comply with federal and Minnesota labor laws but also to give workers the option of at least one day off each week; establish safety committees and let employees choose half the members; and invite unions to meet at least once a year with management.

Most significantly, the document instructs each vendor—unless released from the obligation at Target’s discretion—to reach deals with labor groups that want to represent their workers. According to the memo, such deals should dictate “terms and conditions of employment” (making life easier for workers) but they must prohibit “economic interference with Target’s operations” by labor groups (making life easier for management).

In other words, Target—whose U.S. store workforce is 100 percent union free—is telling companies that want to clean its Twin Cities buildings to make nice with unions.

Asked about the new policy, Target spokesperson Molly Snyder declined to get into specifics. “We don’t typically disclose the details of our vendor contracts,” she wrote in an e-mail. After “engaging with” CTUL, she said, Target “agreed that it was important to reiterate our strong commitment to maintaining high standards and complying with employment laws to our vendors.”

Pressuring companies to enter into such “labor peace” deals has become an increasingly common labor tactic. Management agrees to conditions more favorable to unionization, sometimes for only some workers, and labor leaders agree to limits on strikes or protests and sometimes to limits on what workers can negotiate.

For four years, CTUL, a Minnesota labor group supported by the Service Employees International Union, has been pushing Target to raise standards for workers who clean Target stores but receive paychecks from Target vendors. CTUL-backed janitors mounted strikes in February, June, and November last year. These protests didn’t mobilize a majority of the workforce or shut down any stores, but that wasn’t the point. Instead, they aimed to shame Target, attract more employee-activists, and build public support for better working conditions for workers whom shoppers rarely see or think about.

“We didn’t think we’d get to this point,” CTUL striker and Prestige Maintenance employee Enrique Barcenas, speaking in Spanish, says. “But thanks to our struggle, we did it.”

CTUL’s victory is a limited one. First, it’s limited to the handful of Target stores in and around Minneapolis and St. Paul. And the document includes language stressing that Target “reserves the right to determine in its sole discretion which terms, if any, it will include in its vendor contracts.” It also says Target will relieve vendors of the requirement to deal with labor groups if the corporation judges those groups’ proposals illegal, “arbitrary,” or “capricious.”

While acknowledging the document remains only “a piece of paper,” CTUL co-director Brian Payne not-so-subtly suggests that Target has every incentive to live up to its terms. “After really developing a strong core of leaders in the industry, who have gone on three strikes, have participated in hunger strikes–that’s the mechanism of enforcement,” he says. It’s a strategy labor will try to spread beyond Target, and beyond the Twin Cities.

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