To observers on both sides of this battle, it seemed a pivotal moment: on June 17, over 200 workers at a Target store just outside New York City voted on whether to unionize with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1500.

As the votes were counted on the following day, it became clear that the “No’s” outnumbered the “Yes’s” and that Target’s corporate management had won this round. The final vote was 137 store employees against the union while only 85 voted in favor of unionization. This was not the first time an allegedly “free and fair” National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election at a big-box retail store has gone the way employers wanted it to. Several single-store organizing drives have been run at outlets such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart – most of which similarly failed. Even the two that were successful, in the meat-cutting department of a Palestine, TX, Wal-Mart and an entire Wal-Mart store in Jonquiere, Quebec, were hollow victories: The company discontinued meat-cutting in the Texas store and closed the unionized store in Quebec, effectively firing all union workers.

What’s different about the most recent struggle at Target is that it took place during what is, for working Americans, the deepest recession since the 1930s. It was also different because Local 1500 tried to link this individual “hot-shop” campaign to a broader effort to organize over 5,000 Target workers at 27 stores across metropolitan New York. The initial failure of the single-store drive in Valley Stream, NY, displays yet again the depth of employers’ class-based anti-unionism and the completely employer-biased character of the NLRB system. This organizing drive also exposes the centrality of retail and other low-wage service work to the profound crisis in wages and living standards facing the U.S. working class today.

As this recent episode makes clear, retail is a key battleground in the class struggle of the 21st Century. It is the task of socialists to draw broader lessons from these small but important events and point clearly toward the concrete challenges and opportunities facing U.S. workers in this distributive branch of an increasingly geriatric global capitalism.

A Low-Wage Retail Economy
Over the past 30 years, workers in the U.S. have witnessed an assault on their unions and living standards. Much of this has been accomplished through the wholesale outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to the South and abroad. “Don’t worry, though,” capitalist commentators have urged us, “New jobs are opening up in the high-wage service economy.” The great promise of the ‘90s was that we’d all somehow become day traders or software developers. That hasn’t happened. More than a decade into the 21st Century, the nation’s largest employer isn’t the much-touted Microsoft or Google, but Wal-Mart, the low-wage retail giant. The second largest is McDonald’s, another low-wage nightmare employer. In fact, of the nation’s top 20 employers in 2010, nine were in retail or food service, four in traditional manufacturing and two in transportation, while only three were in “high-tech” computer and communications industries – peaking out at number seven with IBM – and two in finance or insurance. So much for the perennial promises of capitalist ideologists about the great opportunities of the “new” economy.

To be sure, there has been some expansion of management and technical jobs – from 20 percent of total employment in 1970 to 25 percent in 2010. But private-sector jobs in retail and other consumer services have grown significantly more, from 26 to 40 percent of the workforce over the same period, while production jobs – in manufacturing, construction, mining and materials transport – have declined from 35 to 17 percent, with public sector employment consistently hovering at around 17 percent (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

These figures illustrate the seismic shift in the structure of the U.S. economy from a center of production and consumption by the industrial working class, to a center primarily of management of global production – a form of what Lenin in 1916 foresaw as “rentier capitalism” – and consumption of these now-cheaper goods in the U.S. by both managers and workers alike. The middle of the accumulation process, production, has thus been exported to ever greater degrees, and the U.S. class structure is polarizing into two antagonistic camps: a layer of well-paid managers, engineers and myriad corporate stooges, on the one hand and, on the other, a much larger layer of underpaid servants to the rich – and to each other.

Capitalist politicians’ current onslaught against public-sector workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Massachusetts and other states is a concerted attempt to destroy this last remaining bastion of unionized, living-wage jobs and force large sections of the organized working class into the ranks of the unemployed and the service workers. This process is not a foregone conclusion: As the massive resistance of Wisconsin workers has shown, it may yet be possible to stop capitalist politicians in their tracks, protect good union jobs and shore up the gains of previous struggles. But already for millions of low-wage workers in retail, hospitality and other services, the only way forward into a livable tomorrow will be a new offensive for independent worker power in these industries.

The militant Target workers who first approached the UFCW to organize knew this: Many were being given as few as ten hours a week even when they wanted to be full-time, and all employees were told they “max out” at eleven dollars an hour, regardless of how many years they put in at the store. In greater New York City it’s impossible to support a family on $11 an hour, even if you work 40-hour weeks, 52 weeks a year, let alone on the significantly fewer hours that many retail workers typically get.

Management Offensive
Given the low wages, erratic scheduling and frequent disrespect that workers face on the job at places like Target and Wal-Mart, it’s not surprising that some are turning to unions for representation and a voice at work. However, the path to unionization is anything but straightforward.

Under current labor law, there are three major hurdles workers have to overcome if they want to organize. First, they need to file a petition with at least 51 percent of their co-workers’ signatures in support of a union election. Second, and often many months later due to legal stalling by employers, they need to win a secret-ballot election run by the NLRB. In the meantime, employers both know that workers are trying to unionize and have free reign to intimidate them into voting “No.” Target’s management pulled out all the stops in this recent campaign: holding mandatory staff meetings where they showed anti-union propaganda films, following pro-union workers around the store and holding “one-on-one” intimidation sessions with the undecided, threatening to close the store if unionized and, finally, hiring their own private security squad and fleet of vans to transport workers from their homes to the ballot box – in the store – on the day of the election.

Finally, even if workers do pass this gauntlet successfully, vote for a union, and have this ratified by the NLRB and recognized by the employer, they still have to fight for a first contract which, as the recent case of 700 Rite Aid workers at a California distribution center showed, can possibly take years if management drags its heels. In industries such as retail, with high employee turnover and large shares of “contingent” – part-time or temporary – workers, long delays can effectively nullify unionization efforts.

Fighting Back
The institutional path to unionization – in retail as in practically all other industries -is anything but smooth and grossly favors employers. Big businesses have also perfected their union-prevention tactics, paying millions of dollars every year to professional union-busting “consultants.” Given the absurdly dysfunctional character of the NLRB election process, a great debate has raged among labor activists and union leaders about how to get around it and build union power without the help of the pro-capitalist state.

In the 1990s, there seemed to be an emerging consensus that organizing outside the NLRB required rank-and-file intensive tactics and a comprehensive strategy to pressure employers from all directions to recognize workers’ right to organize. But then Andy Stern – U.S. labor’s self-appointed visionary – rose to power in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and pushed for a model of organizing at any cost – even to workers. The debate shifted to a focus on employer-friendly deals and reliance on the Democrats to pass union-friendly legislation.

Instead of building class consciousness and power among rank-and-file workers to challenge the corporate dictatorship, some unions began humbly approaching the dictators – the employers – to negotiate “neutrality agreements” for future organizing. They began touting supposed benefits to the company and pre-emptively excluding large issues – such as health care, work rules or pensions – from future bargaining. While this tactic might superficially bring some workers into unions, primarily in the home-care and non-profit health industries, its chances for “success” against large capitalist firms in retail and food service are laughable: With all the money and effort these corporations pour into their anti-union spy networks, why should they be convinced by union leaders that, in fact, unionization is “better” for their company? And even if by some miracle they were, the type of “unionism” required to convince them would necessarily be such a watered-down, thin form of “representation” that workers would more than likely be better off without it.

UFCW Local 1500 has thus far not taken this SEIU-sponsored path in its attempt to organize New York-area Target workers. And due to the massive attack the company launched against this small initial campaign – which both organizers and workers did not fully anticipate – it’s unlikely they’ll pursue such class collaborationism. The task at hand is all the more clear, if not any easier, for this illumination of naked class interest. If Local 1500 is serious about organizing Target workers, the next phase of struggle – which has already begun, by its own account – will be a longer-term process of building consciousness and solidarity among workers at various Target stores in the area, as well as building links with other unions and community allies, including Target shoppers. Achieving recognition and a union contract may well require direct action – strike, boycott, or both – to push past the soul-draining deadlock of the NLRB “process.”

Of course this is all easier said than done, as Socialist Alternative members know from experience. The stakes are high: If a beachhead of militant unionism can be achieved at New York-area Target stores, this could have an electrifying effect for millions of workers at other big-box retailers and across the increasingly low-wage economy. Given the defeats that U.S. workers have seen in recent years – often handed to them by their own alleged leaders – success, no matter how small initially, is desperately needed to provide confidence and inspiration to broader layers of the new working class. As the campaign at Target shows, the struggles of post-industrial service workers are just beginning to emerge. Their blossoming into a full-fledged movement for dignity, respect and a better society will be aided immensely by a far-sighted commitment to class struggle, not class collaboration, and the determined implementation of organizing tactics that flow from this perspective.