Struggling Unions Shop at Big Retail Stores for New Members

unionsAs manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs have continued to wane in recent years, so have the number of workers represented by labor unions. To reverse the drop in their rolls, labor leaders have focused their efforts at organizing workers not traditionally represented by unions, such as home health aides, janitors and retail clerks.

Of that last group, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has long been the target of union organizers, who have accused the world's largest retail chain of a number of abuses, including violations of labor laws, inadequate wages and scant benefits.

Now Wal-Mart rival Target Corp. has entered organizers' crosshairs. Though the Minneapolis-based chain is generally viewed as a good corporate citizen, workers in New York City, a union stronghold, are seeking to organize some 5,000 workers at 27 Big Apple-area stores, according to The New York Times.

Workers at the Target store in the Long Island community of Valley Stream already have signed cards supporting unionization and will hold a vote June 17 on whether to become members of the United Food and Commercial Workers. It will be the first such vote by Target employees in more than 20 years.

"I think the strategy for organizing Target [stores] will work," says Arthur Wheaton, an expert on labor issues at Cornell University's ILR School. Organizers have committed to working with Target management and aren't looking to shut stores down, but rather secure better wages for the company's workers.

"They're not having an all-out war, they're not saying ... bad, negative things about Target," Wheaton says. Instead, organizers are asking why Target workers should have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid to help make ends meet, as is the case for one Target worker at the Valley Stream store, Sonia Williams, who was profiled in the Times piece.

Williams earns $12.71 an hour, which includes a $1-an-hour night differential, a wage on which it's difficult to support a family in most U.S. locales, let alone New York.

For example, to live as well as a worker earning $50,000 in Houston, a New York City resident living in the borough of Queens would have to earn about $86,000, according to a 2009 report by the Center for an Urban Future, a Manhattan-based think tank.

Target says that its wages are competitive and its employees don't need a union, the Times reported.

The UFCW's gentle, kinder approach differs from recent efforts by other union leaders, such as UAW President Bob King, who earlier this year branded Toyota Motor Corp. a "human rights violator." The Japanese automaker has eight plants in the U.S., none of which are unionized.

Regardless of strategy, the question remains whether organizers' efforts to boost member rolls will be successful. Last year was a tough one for unions, which recorded membership losses in both private and public sectors.

In 2010, about 14.7 million workers, or 11.9 percent of the nation's workforce, belonged to a union, down from 12.3 percent in 2009, a decline of about 612,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The data, released in January, further showed that for the second year in a row the number of unionized government employees, 7.6 million, outnumbered those in the private sector at 7.1 million, though both saw their numbers decline.

The union membership rate for public sector workers, at 36.2 percent, was substantially higher than the rate of 6.9 percent for private sector workers, the bureau said. In 2009, 7.2 percent of the private-sector workforce was unionized, while 37.4 percent of government workers were union members.

Among states, New York had the highest unionization rate of any, at 24.2 percent, followed by Alaska, at 22.9 percent, and Hawaii, at 21.8 percent. North Carolina had the lowest rate, at 3.2 percent, with Arkansas and Georgia tied for second-lowest at 4 percent.

The percentage of union workers is a far cry from the nearly 18 percent union membership rate recorded in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, according to the BLS. Americans' participation in unions peaked in the 1950s, when about 35 percent of all workers were union members, driven by a surge in organizing activity amid the Great Depression and following World War II.

The nation's housing slump, which has taken a toll on construction jobs, led to the largest decline of union membership in a single sector, falling to 13.1 percent last year, down from 14.5 percent in 2009, but manufacturing and teaching also saw losses.

The reduction in the number of union workers last year and a similar drop in 2009 followed two years of gains, thanks to increases in employment and successful organizing campaigns.

The recent recession played a role in reducing unionized labor, but other factors also contributed to the recent decline, including an increasingly global workforce and growing resistance among corporations to accept organizing drives.

Whether organizers' efforts at the New York-area Target stores will be successful remains to be seen, of course. Given the nation's high unemployment rate and dearth of demand for low-skilled workers, however, joining a union may be the only chance that Target workers have at getting a much-needed raise.

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