VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. -- Workers at a Target store outside of New York City voted against joining the United Food and Commercial Workers Friday, dealing a significant blow to the American labor movement, which had championed the campaign as a key battleground in its efforts to organize the retail industry.
The union swiftly alleged wrongdoing. The UFCW claimed that the poll -- a 137 to 85 vote rejection of unionization -- was the result of an illegal program of intimidation by Target management that made workers too frightened to express their real sentiments at the polls.
The union called on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate Target and consider mandating a new election if it concludes that Target violated labor laws.
"The UFCW is committed to raising living standards for all retail workers, including those at this and all Targets," said Audra Makuch, special assistant to the regional director for the northeastern United States, in an email statement Saturday. "While yesterday's vote didn't certify the union, this was just the first step in a campaign to improve the lives of Target workers."
Target trumpeted the result as an affirmation by its employees that union representation would be an unwanted intrusion.
"At Target, it has always been our goal to have a culture where our team members don't want or need union representation," Derek Jenkins, Target's senior vice president of stores for the Northeast region, said in a press release. "We believe in solving issues and concerns by working together with the help and input of all team members. Our team has embraced that philosophy by rejecting union representation."
The election at the Valley Stream store was the first Target had faced in more than two decades. None of the company's 1,700 locations nationwide has ever had union representation.
Rank and file workers who supported unionization expressed great disappointment, telling The Huffington Post that the vote was a victory for what they portrayed as Target's union-busting tactics. Many have complained that they earn so little that must rely on food stamps to keep themselves adequately nourished.
"This is not actually a victory for Target. They should understand that something is radically wrong up in that store," said Sonia Williams, a Target employee for nine years and one of the first to reach out to the union seeking representation. "Target won through fear."
Williams said the vote was lost because workers were intimidated by the company's anti-union message -- delivered in pamphlets, video and public statements -- which, she says, suggested that the store would close if the vote passed, and made the case that the union would take workers' money and give them nothing in return.
Betsey Wilson, a Target worker for two years, said Friday that she would not be voting for the union.
"What I'm afraid of is someone coming in here and controlling me," she said. "I'm my own union. I represent me."
Wilson said she earns around $20,000 a year and receives food stamps, yet she expressed satisfaction with her pay.
"I don't mind being on food stamps," she said. "I pay taxes, I deserve them."
Offering sentiments that underscore the challenges for organizing labor in an age of economic insecurity and scarcity, Wilson pointedly dismissed the value of handing a sliver of her wages off to a third party for union dues.
"A union is for people that don't want to work anymore," she said.
(For more history and context, check out our piece delving into the the UFCW's campaign -- and the stakes for the union, for America's second largest retailer and for the future of workers' compensation in America.)
All day Friday, past the cheap-chic apparel and discounted makings for campfire smores, Target workers slowly filed in and out of a backroom to cast their ballots. The voting, presided over by an official from the NLRB, took place in the same room that the store's managers and executives from Target headquarters in Minneapolis had been using to play an anti-union film, "Think Hard Before You Sign."
"The majority has spoken. So I guess that's how it is," Williams said. Reached by phone Saturday morning, Williams sounded sad. "Mark my word, it's going to be hell up inside that store for we who wanted the union."
"But I went into this with my eyes wide open," she said. "And this is just the beginning. Because we have all of the other retailers looking at us."
In the past weeks the feeling between pro-union employees and management has grown increasingly hostile. Many of the most out-spoken workers in support of union representation said that as election day approached, they felt harassed at work, reporting stories of being followed around the store and into the bathroom on breaks to ensure that they wouldn't be able to speak to colleagues that were undecided.
One of the biggest challenges in a campaign like this, organizers say, is communicating with workers. Union representatives were not allowed to discuss the union or explain their point of view on store property. Instead, they had to rely on home visits and phone calls.
The UFCW has filed numerous charges against Target with the NLRB and claims the company threatened workers with the closure of the store in the face of a vote to join the union. Target broadly disputes the union's accusations and denies threatening to close the Valley Stream store.
In the days leading up to Friday's vote, the feeling in the air at the Valley Stream store grew more charged. Store managers and executives from Target's corporate headquarters flooded the store. Pro-union employees and organizers walked the floor, trying to rally support. But on the day of the vote itself, the store was eerily quiet.
Union organizers stood in a parking lot across the street from Target, talking with workers as they came by on their way to vote or work a shift. A pro-union worker named Tibsy, who wears a "Jesus is my boss" baseball cap walked by and shouted, "I feel good!" The group clapped.
"I always say, they're the incumbent and we're the challenger," said Patrick Purcell, spokesperson for UFCW Local 1500, as he glanced across the lot at Target's iconic bullseye. "And the voting booth is in the incumbent's house."
Losing the vote is not the end of the UFCW's efforts to organize at Target. Next week the local plans to meet with labor leaders at headquarters to regroup for the organizing push at Target's 26 other stores in the New York City area.
Kevin Whyte, a four-year Target veteran who reached out to the union back in February, said that although he is strongly in favor of unionization, he has no plans to leave the store if the vote does not go in the union's favor.