There has been quite a lot of discussion of unions lately, and to be honest, I think it is kind of exciting. Unions had been quietly fading away, especially in the private sector, but now they seem to be in the headlines once again and I think the attention that is being paid to unions might end up back-firing against those who seek to eliminate them. We heard a lot about Unions with the WalMart employee’s planned “Black Friday” events organized by OUR Walmart: Organization United for Respect at Walmart and the recent controversies over the introduction of “Right-to-Work” laws in Michigan. In this post, I want to concentrate on private-sector employees.
The following video made the rounds of the internet a little while ago. It purports to be an anti-union training video produced by Target. (I looked it up on snopes.com and did not find any debunking, so I am going to assume it is legit).
One of the things that I find so interesting about this video is the way it seems to have a number of internal contradictions. For example, Target is a business, and when we think of Target we are supposed to think of a happy family according to these actors’ lines. In contrast, when they describe the unions, all of a sudden “business” becomes some kind of frightening and corrupt thing. So in the one case, business is supposed to be benign but in the other it is supposed to be scary (complete with scary music! Which is great).
But there is something else odd about this, which is that they seem to be importing a for-profit business model into the not-for-profit union domain. For example, they state that a union “is not a charity” it is a business. But it has no products, only memberships to sell. The “only alternative” (to what is not made clear) is to get more people to pay more money to them in dues every month. But unions aren’t seeking to increase their own profits, because unions are not-for-profit organizations. Therefore, they don’t need to follow business models that require the “only alternative” of getting more people to pay more money to increase profits.
Second, unions sell services, they don’t sell products and they don’t sell memberships. Many businesses don’t sell products. Many businesses sell services. If we want to think of unions as businesses, then they should be thought of more along the lines of service industries and not along the lines of widget-makers. The services that unions sell are bargaining services, and they sell a good service when they are able to effectively bargain on workers’ behalves.
Now, it might be true that there are certain oddities about unions that make them somewhat market-unresponsive. For example, Wikipedia describes a number of union types:
- A closed shop (US) or a “pre-entry closed shop” (UK) employs only people who are already union members. The compulsory hiring hall is an example of a closed shop—in this case the employer must recruit directly from the union, as well as the employee working strictly for unionized employers.
- A union shop (US) or a “post-entry closed shop” (UK) employs non-union workers as well, but sets a time limit within which new employees must join a union.
- An agency shop requires non-union workers to pay a fee to the union for its services in negotiating their contract. This is sometimes called the Rand formula. In certain situations involving state public employees in the United States, such as California, “fair share laws” make it easy to require these sorts of payments.
- An open shop does not require union membership in employing or keeping workers. Where a union is active, workers who do not contribute to a union still benefit from the collective bargaining process. In the United States, state level right-to-work laws mandate the open shop in some states. In Germany only open shops are legal; that is, all discrimination based on union membership is forbidden. This affects the function and services of the union. An EU case concerning Italy extended this principle to the rest of the EU in that it stated that, “The principle of trade union freedom in the Italian system implies recognition of the right of the individual not to belong to any trade union (“negative” freedom of association/trade union freedom), and the unlawfulness of discrimination liable to cause harm to non-unionized employees.” (Source: Wikipedia “Trade Union”)
Now, Republicans in so-called “Right-to-Work” legislation like to focus on the first three types listed above (closed shop, union shop, and agency shop unions). The Republicans often suggest that requiring union dues violates negative freedoms of association (the right not to associate, if one so chooses). There might be some truth to these complaints. For example, I would be mighty unhappy if I were forced to pay my hairdresser (a service provider) every month whether or not I wanted a haircut.
On the other hand, “Right-to-Work” legislation favours open-shop unions, and this too has its troubles. Open shop unions allow employees to decide whether they want to associate as a union (the positive freedom to associate without government interference requires allowing workers to continue to make this choice if so desired, though this right is not honoured in all of the United States or Canadian provinces). But those who choose not to associate with the union are still able to reap the benefits of the services provided by the unions. This is destined to weaken the union. Keeping with the hairdresser metaphor, if I were not required to pay my hairdresser, but I was still able to obtain a haircut whenever I wanted one, there would be no incentive for me to pay the hairdresser. Sure, a few people who really believed in the skills of hairdressers might continue to pay, but in short time most (if not all) hairdressers would likely go out of business. Ironically, in making the anti-union case, the Target video points out precisely this problem: “And no body wants to pay dues for something they already have” (Source: “Doug” about minute 3:22).
Before I go on to suggest an alternative, it might be worth considering whether union services are something we bought once, and now “already have” forever. It is a strange suggestion, since most services are things we buy on an ongoing basis and if we stop buying them, then we lose the service. Perhaps if we were thinking of unions as something that sold a “product” then this would make sense. For example, if I buy a book, I don’t need to keep buying it every month. But as we’ve already discussed, unions sell a service, not a product. If I have enrolled in a cleaning service, then I will need to continuously put money into that service, otherwise the cleaners will no longer come.
This video: Debunking anti-union myths takes on this point directly:
This video notes that unions are a service. One of the things that they provide is on-going representation in addition to helping to enforce the legislative gains that were made by unions in the past. Even if labour laws exist, they will not be effective unless they are enforced. Part of the service that this video claims is provided by unions is assistance in enforcing their legal rights under labour standards legislation.
In contrast, Target tries to have it both ways. They paint for-profit businesses of the past as evil, while making for-profit businesses of the presents into benign entities. So they are not daemonizing unions, you see. Just modern not-for-profit unions (businesses), who are “out of step” with the evolving and competitive modern for-profit businesses. Here is Gwen Sharpe on this issue:
What I found especially striking was the segment starting at about 3:10, where they argue we don’t need unions because, basically, they were so effective in the past, they already fixed everything! There’s no more child labor, you can get worker’s comp if you’re injured…what more could you need a union for? So on the one hand, today unions are useless, empty organizations that just take your money and give you nothing, but in the past, they were great. Presumably employers only had to be told once to clean up, and then for all time everything is fixed. (source: Sharpe)
In addition, the union can serve as a buffer or “anonymizer” between the employee making the complaint and the employer who will hear the complaint. Is this necessary? I guess that is for employees to decide for themselves. The union case is that if an employee makes a complaint about the way they are being managed, and the only outlet for this complaint is that very same management, then there is a heightened chance that the employee will be fired for the complaint. Target disagrees:
[“Maria”] Person 2: …Target prides its self on our open door policy. Ask your team leader, ask your ETL [executive team leader], or ask any supervisor. There doors and every door are always open to you and what you have to say.
I don’t know how most employees might feel about talking about their problems with management directly to management, but as a union member (not a ‘higher up’ whose whole job is negotiating, but just a regular employee who is a member of a union whose job has nothing to do with union negotiations), I am pretty happy to have someone to act as a go-between so that I don’t have to fear being fired.
Link Round-Up and Transcript of the Target Video below the fold.
Seth Ackerman “The Twinkie Defense, or What does ‘Uncompetitive’ Mean?“ Jacobin, Nov. 2012
Hamilton Nolan “Strikes Work” Gawker, Sept. 20, 2012.
Hamilton Nolan “Why We Need Unions” Gawker, Jun. 6, 2012.
xxxxxxpimptaddyone “Labor Unions 101 for all you total idiot Liberals” YouTube April 2, 2011
Union Strategies interviews Dr. Stephanie Ross of York University “Debunking Union Myths: Part 1: Unions Are No Longer Necessary in the 21st Century” (I cannot seem to find Part 2 or above).
Gwen Sharpe “Target’s Anti-Union Video for New Employees” Sociological Images, June 15, 2011.
Hamilton Nolan “Here’s the Cheesy Anti-Union Video All Target Employees Must Endure” Gawker, Jun 13, 2011. Transcript of the Video available if you click here.
Martin Jay Levitt “Confessions of a Union Buster” YouTube, Episode 1: “The Climate of Fear” Episode 2: “Union Busters: Who Are They?” Episode 3: “The Role of Supervisors” Episode 4: “Fighting Back: Exposure”
Wikipedia “Trade Union”
Wikipedia “Right-to-Work Law”
Wikipedia “Public-Sector Trade Union”
Target Anti-Union Video Transcript
Target Anti-Union DVD Video Training Transcription (Source)
This is a transcript from a training DVD Target stores (www.target.com
– Ticker: TGT) shows to all store employees. The video of this has
been put on various web sites around the internet.
[“Doug”] Person 1: Welcome to Target where we know you’ll have a terrific
experience. I’m Doug.
[“Maria”] Person 2: And I’m Maria and even if you already started working here
you’re already part of an important team and a great Target Store.
[“Doug”] Person 1: That’s right. Now you were chosen to work in our store
because we think you’ll help us achieve our vision of being the best
[“Maria”] Person 2: You’ll probably learn something new every day. At least for
a little while.
[“Doug”] Person 1: There will also be a lot of challenges. But there’s nothing
we can’t solve by working together. The leadership team and your
fellow team members are anxious to help you and to make working at
Target a positive and rewarding experience.
[“Maria”] Person 2: If you ever have a question all you have to do is ask it.
Everyone here from the CEO down wants you to be successful. In fact
Target prides its self on our open door policy. Ask your team leader,
ask your ETL [executive team leader], or ask any supervisor. There
doors and every door are always open to you and what you have to say.
Two way communications, fair dealings are a key part of our culture
and a key part of our success.
[“Doug”] Person 1: We’re in a very competitive business, and we’re changing all
the time. We have to. In order to stay ahead of the other guys. Now
just a few years ago we really didn’t sell that much in the way of
grocery items, but now well many of our stores have a full line
grocery. And others sell many more food items which means that we’re
now competing not only with other retailers but with grocery stores
[“Maria”] Person 2: That’s a huge challenge but we believe we can win the battle
with the competition because not only do we have high quality products
at competitive prices we’ve got the best guest service in the
business. And because we’re the best that makes those of us at Target
a target our selves.
[“Doug”] Person 1: We’re a Target because we’re a threat to unions. The unions
that represent grocery store workers.
[“Maria”] Person 2: When we take business away from unionized grocery stores
that means they need fewer employees.
[“Doug”] Person 1: And fewer grocery store employees means fewer union
members. And fewer members? Well that’s a problem for the union
business. That’s right, I said business. Union business.
[scary themed background music starts to play]
[screen with dollar bills falling down begins to play]
[“Maria”] Person 2: A union is not a charity. It’s not a club and it’s not part
of the government. It’s a business. A business that has to take in
money to survive. But it doesn’t have any products to sell. All it
has is memberships to sell. A unions only source of income is the
money they charge members.
[“Doug”] Person 1: Money for initiation, dues, fines, assessments. You get the
picture. So it’s pretty obvious that the fewer members their business
has the less money they collect.
[“Maria”] Person 2: The unions only alternative is to get more people to pay
their hard earned money to them in dues every month.
[“Doug”] Person 1: And that’s becoming more and more of a problem for unions
[chart showing the decline of unions]
[“Doug”] Person 1: 50 years ago one out of every 3 workers was in a union.
Today that number excluding government workers is dropped to less than
1 in 10.
[“Maria”] Person 2: One of the biggest reasons is that workers know that all the
good things unions once did child safety laws, workmans comp, all of
that they’re all laws today. Laws protecting workers. They were
passed along time ago.
[“Doug”] Person 1: And no body wants to pay dues for something they already
[“Maria”] Person 2: So the numbers just keep going down. You can see why the
union would want to organize us here at Target.
[“Doug”] Person 1: If the unions did try to organize Target team members they
could also try and bring along there way of doing business. An old
fashioned rigid structure.
[“Maria”] Person 2: Old fashioned is right. Being able to change quickly and
adapt to new opportunities being flexible. That’s the key to running
a successful business in todays market and we’ve got the flexibility
[“Doug”] Person 1: Right you are. No one knows exactly what could happen. But
there are lots of examples of how rigid grocery store contracts could
hurt our stores ability to serve guests and actually hurt our team
members in the process.
[“Maria”] Person 2: Here’s what we mean. Let’s say you’re working in stationary
but you’re walking through domestics on your way to check on
something. A guest stops you and ask for help. What would you do?
With out even thinking about it you’d stop and give them any
assistance they required.
[scary background music starts to play again]
[“Maria”] Person 2: But what if union work rules say you can’t work outside of
your department? What do you tell the guest? Sorry I can’t help
you? That makes you look bad. But more importantly it means our
guest doesn’t get immediate attention and they might not come back.
So everyone gets hurt. Everyone except the union. Right now team
members can get more hours based on their ability to cover more than
one area. You have the option of being cross trained and becoming a
more valuable member of your team.
[“Doug”] Person 1: That’s right. But with a rigid union contract that may no
longer be an option.
[“Maria”] Person 2: Also under the old fashioned union rules that really haven’t
changed in decades seniority rules. Rather than treating people as
individuals everything depends on when you were hired. Schedules, job
assignments, promotions, transfers, even days off are often decided by
[“Doug”] Person 1: And that can be one of the least efficient and really not a
nice way to operate. There is no regard for individual skills and
needs of each team member. Top workers suffer because their
performance isn’t reflected in job assignments or promotions and the
company suffers because the best qualified people don’t necessarily
get the right jobs.
[“Maria”] Person 2: Once again the only winner is the union. That can justify
collecting dues from people that don’t get the jobs or hours they want
based simply on that seniority date. They don’t have to offer an
explanation at all about why someone else might be better qualified
for the job and at Target we don’t have those rigid rules. We’re open
and honest. You’ve got the desire, we’ll tell you what you need to do
to get ready for another assignment. We believe in putting the best
person in every job based on their qualifications not on seniority.
That helps to keep our employees productive and our guests happy.
[“Doug”] Person 1: And speaking of our guests they can also be a Target of the
unions. Some day you might come in to work and find pickets telling
guests to not shop at Target. Or you might read articles about unions
threatening to boycott our stores just to scare away our guests and
encourage them to shop somewhere else. None of that helps you or any
other team member. After all every one of us depends on our guests
for our jobs.
[“Maria”] Person 2: That’s right because the union needs your dues money at some
point you might be asked to join. We’ll talk about the tactics
organizers might use in a minute.
[“Doug”] Person 1: But first it’s important for you to know Targets philosophy
Jim Rowader (Target Director, Labor Relations & Sr. Counsel): Hi. I’m
Jim Rowader. Team members have the right to join unions, but they
also have a right not to join unions. Experience has shown us that
after learning the facts Target team members agree union
representation is not in their best interest. In fact not one group
of Target team members today has chosen to be represented by a union.
Ultimately what works best for Target and our team members is the
ability to meet challenges, resolve issues, and grow the business
together. With out the interferance of a union or other 3rd party.
3rd party representation, trying to divide us, is contrary to our
company philosophy and beliefs. Our team environment strives to
create a clear direct path of communication. We believe in solving
issues and concerns by working together. All of us. Team members,
team leaders, group leaders, supervisors, and managers will work
together to insure an environment open to discussing and resolving
concerns. Target celebrates the success of team members and strives
to recognize excellent performance. We do these things because it is
the right thing to do. And because we believe working together with
out union representation is the best way to grow and flourish. I’m
convinced that a union would not improve anything at Target. Not for
our team members, not for our guests, and not for our company. Bottom
line at Target you don’t need to pay dues to a third party to have a
work place where world class team members work together, listen to
each other, and treat each other with dignity and respect.
[“Doug”] Person 1: World class team members. That’s you, and at Target we
respect you. Every effort is made to insure a rewarding work
experience as well as being fast, fun, and friendly.
[“Maria”] Person 2: No team member has ever had to pay one nickel of their pay
check to a union to get fair treatment from Target.
[“Doug”] Person 1: We said earlier that you might some day be asked to join a
union. It’s happened before. Unions have spent hundreds of hours
picketing our stores and asking team members to sign up. But not one
group of team members, not one anywhere in the whole company has ever
decided they needed a union.
[“Maria”] Person 2: So some day you might be asked to sign a union card or
petition authorizing a union to represent you.
[“Doug”] Person 1: You may not realize it, but your signature on that card or
petition is very valuable to a union.
[“Maria”] Person 2: It’s true your autograph can create a legal contract
obligating you to the union.
[“Doug”] Person 1: And that won’t be what a union organizer tells you though.
You may hear statements like your signature isn’t important it’s just
to get more information. Or just sign the card every body else is
[“Maria”] Person 2: The card its self is not dangerous, but the words printed on
it are. Lots of times union cards or petitions contain words like I
hereby authorize the union to represent me or I hereby accept
membership when you sign one of those you may be joining the union.
[“Doug”] Person 1: Your signature could be used by the union to get the right
to legally represent you and collect dues with out even letting you
[“Maria”] Person 2: Some unions have even gone so far as to use signatures to
force themselves on employees even after the majority of employees
have voted against the union representation.
[“Doug”] Person 1: Right. You may be wondering ok, why is that such a big
deal? It’s a big deal because when a union becomes a team members
representative that team member loses the legal right to deal directly
with the management team.
[“Maria”] Person 2: No more open door. With a union you no longer have your own
voice. Have a great suggestion? You can’t take it directly to your
manager. You have to go through the union layers. Need help with a
problem? Same thing. Someone else will do the talking for you. And
there’s no guarantee you’ll like what they have to say.
Guarantees. Guarantees and promises. That’s something else you might
hear from a union. Unions often make big promises about wages and
benefit increases if the team member will only sign their card. Those
are promises they can’t keep.
[“Doug”] Person 1: The fact is a union can’t guarantee anything they promise.
Even if there was a union here the company can and would legally
demand that Target and only Target would make the final decision on
all wages and benefits regardless of what the union promises.
[“Maria”] Person 2: In other words management doesn’t have to agree to any union
demand. If the union demands seem potentially harmful to the company,
too expensive, or not too smart management can simply say no.
[“Doug”] Person 1: We realize that’s a lot of information, but it’s very
important. Important to Target and important to you.
[“Maria”] Person 2: The risk of getting a union with out a vote, big promises
that can’t be kept, pressure on guests not to shop at our stores, for
all those reasons and a whole lot more please think hard before you
sign any card or petition.
[“Doug”] Person 1: You’ll always have the right to make a choice here at
Target. And that includes refusing to sign any union authorization.
[“Maria”] Person 2: You also have the right to work with out fear of union
harassment or soliciation. If you’re approached while you’re working
you have the right to discuss the situation with any member of the
leadership team. Remember their doors always open and you can speak
with them directly. Target will enforce solicitation, distribution,
and harassment policies.
[“Doug”] Person 1: That’s right. We feel strongly that once you learn the
facts you’ll decide that having a union at Target might benefit the
union because they could collect your dues.
[“Maria”] Person 2: But it’s not in the best interest of the company or the team
[“Doug”] Person 1: Refuse to sign and keep Target union free. (Source)