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Retail rebellion: The next big strike could begin next week

First came the Black Friday strike at Walmarts nationwide.
Shoppers exit a Target store with their purchases in Fairfax, Virginia, February 4, 2010. (REUTERS/Stelios Varias)
Shoppers exit a Target store with their purchases in Fairfax, Virginia, February 4, 2010.

First came the Black Friday strike at Walmarts nationwide. Now janitors at Target retail stores across Minneapolis—the site of the company's international headquarters—are saying they will walk off the job if management does not meet with them before noon Sunday.

"The strike threat follows a series of OSHA charges alleging that employees of those companies were denied proper safety training and locked inside of Target stores, and National Labor Relations Board charges alleging that they were retaliated against for organizing," reports The Nation's Josh Eidelson.

If the strike occurs, then it will be the latest example of labor activity around low-wage retail and service sector jobs, in what appears to be a growing nationwide trend. Shortly after last year's Black Friday walkout, New York City fast food restaurants experienced an  industry-wide strike. New York Communities for Change, the lead group organizing New York fast food workers, has also recently fought to organize New York car wash employees.

The brewing Target conflict bears some key similarities to those other campaigns. In all cases, the workers are low-wage employees in the service or retail industry, where women, people of color and immigrants are frequently over-represented. None of the workers are already members of traditional unions, and in some cases unions are not even directly involved in the organizing campaign. Instead, Target employees are collaborating with an "alt-labor" group called Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha.

Similarly, New York Communities for Change, though it frequently works with New York-area labor unions, is a community organization. The Walmart campaign is in part a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, but the UFCW insists it is not seeking a formal union election or a collective bargaining agreement. All of these labor campaigns instead revolve around non-traditional modes of organizing, though some may eventually lead to collective bargaining agreements.

One potential wrinkle for the Target workers comes from the fact that they are not technically employed by Target. Instead, Target contracts out to three janitorial contractors, who then employ the janitors. This method of "distancing" from employees by farming out work to independent contractors is a common practice in the janitorial industry, which has caused serious complications for other labor campaigns.

Whether or not the Target janitors go on strike,  labor actions of this sort have significant implications for the future of American work. As Demos' David Callhan writes, "A half century ago, auto executives could accurately say that the fortunes of the auto industry and the rest of America were intimately entwined. Well, the same is true of the retail sector today."