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Valley Stream Target Store Closing Kills Union's Great Big Box Hope

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Back in June when workers at a Target store just outside New York City were about to vote on whether to unionize, employees received an ominous pamphlet from company management: "Will the store close if the union gets in?" the pamphlet began. "Nothing is guaranteed."

The vote to unionize failed, but efforts continued to organize the store, nestled in a well-trafficked and sprawling shopping center in Long Island's Valley Stream.

Now Target is planning to shut down the store. Last week, the company told employees in Valley Stream that this store will close for six months for long-planned renovations. The Valley Stream store is one of 1,100 Target branches that have been remodeled or slated for renovation by year's end; all but one other store are slated to remain open throughout renovations, however.

"Eligible employees" will be invited to transfer to other Target locations or take an unpaid leave of absence and resume work once the store reopens, said Molly Snyder, a company spokeswoman.

The union tells a different story. The most vocal pro-union employees have not been deemed eligible to return, union representatives said. Last week the union filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the store's closure is retaliation for employees' organizing activities.

Target denies that the store's closure has any connection to the union campaign. "This is completely separate from the union; the store will reopen and the team will be back," Snyder said.

Sonia Williams, one of the most active pro-union employees who has frequently spoken to the media, including The Huffington Post, found out last week that she wasn't eligible to transfer or apply for unpaid leave, she said. She was offered, however, a severance package for her nearly 10 years of work that amounts, after taxes, to about $800, Williams said.

Management told her she was "on final warning," but did not explain why, Williams said, noting that she had received no prior written or oral notice. Management had met with her once previously about one matter but her manager told her it had been resolved, she said.

Williams does not believe Target's explanation for closing the store. "This is all just because of the union; they want to scatter us," she said.

Target declined to comment on Williams' situation.

The closure "has the potential to have the most chilling possible impact on any future campaign," said Patrick Purcell, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers' Local 150 that has been involved with the union campaign since its star. "Workers will see this and say, I could lose my job. Target will use that."

Target told its Valley Stream employees about the renovation months before the unionization efforts started. At the time, management said the store would remain open, Williams said. When employees learned last week of the closing, they were "shocked," she said.

Target declined to tell The Huffington Post specifics about the timing of its decision to close the store but did say that this store required a more extensive renovation than others as it originally had been a Caldor department store and needed a complete remodeling.

"For a year and a half we have told the Valley Stream team that Target was committed to remodeling the Valley Stream store and that we were working to understand the full scope of the remodeling needs," Snyder said.

Labor advocates had championed the Valley Stream store as a key battleground in their effort to organize the retail industry.

"That's where the game changing will take place," said labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein last summer.

"They can be successful, but I just hate to say it, I don't think they will be," he said then. "All of these big box stores have perfected their anti-unionism to a science," added Lichtenstein, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has written two books about Walmart, Target's chief competitor.

For organized labor, big box retail presents a great opportunity to recruit to its ranks large numbers of low-wage workers in one of the few sectors of the economy that is growing. Progress here, labor historians say, would reshape the service industry, which is increasingly considered to be the backbone of the American economy. But so far, despite decades of labor efforts at the two biggest retailers in the United States, Walmart and Target, not a single store is unionized.

The fight at Target began brewing in February 2011, when dozens of workers at the Valley Stream store contacted the United Food and Commercial Workers in a quest for representation, hoping to bargain with the discount retailer for better hours and a living wage. In the weeks before a June union election, the company unleashed an aggressive anti-union campaign.

That June, the union alleged that the company threatened workers with the closure of the store if they voted to join the union, which is illegal.

The National Labor Relations board has since found evidence to support the unions' accusations of threats by Target and uncovered additional evidence suggesting illegal intimidation tactics by management, Crains New York reported. The case is now awaiting a judge's ruling, expected to arrive in coming months. If the judge rules in the union's favor, the the old election result might be thrown out and a new election scheduled.

Or there might have been one, if the store were still open. With the store closed and its employees scattered, a revote would likely be impossible, the union said.

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