Note to Target: Your Anti-Union Plan Should Be Better Than a Lousy Video

See update below with union vote.

Look, I get it.

You don’t want unions. And really, I don’t know too many business leaders that welcome them with open arms.

But let’s also not pretend that unionization drives happen to innocent businesses that are just trying to do good in this world. Most of the time, it isn’t just representation for representation’s sake. Especially now, unionization is almost completely reactive. A group of employees calls and the union responds.

When a unionization drive hits a major big box retailer though, you’ll hear about it. Of course, your mind probably immediately went to that big company based in Arkansas. In this case at least, you’re off target.

Push to unionize Target Stores in New York

Late last month, word came out that the United Food and Commercial Workers union was aiming to organize 27 New York Target stores. The New York Times writes:

The union decided to focus on Target after employees in Valley Stream, on Long Island, asked for help in unionizing. Echoing longstanding complaints by some Wal-Mart workers, the store’s employees complained that many of them earned too little to support a family or afford health insurance, forcing some to rely on food stamps and Medicaid for their children.

“What we want from Target is simply this: we need a living wage where we can get by,” said Sonia Williams, a logistics employee in Valley Stream who said she earns $11.71 an hour, plus a $1-an-hour night differential.”

The main issue of pay stems not just from the hourly wage but from the fact that many retailers (including Target) have higher than necessary staffing levels to deal with fluctuations in schedule and demand. Having been on the scheduling end in retail, I get it. Finding the perfect balance isn’t easy. Either you’re asking people to come in and work more hours than they want (and sometimes overtime) or you have too few hours to shuffle to too many employees.

There isn’t an easy solution to this.

A video fit for 10th grade chemistry class

What isn’t a solution is a low quality, anti-union video that was recently posted on Gawker. I’ve done the anti-union talk with employees, I’ve crafted open door policies and coached supervisors on how to deal with possible organization discussions. It wasn’t necessarily the most fun part of any HR job I’ve had, but it was needed.

This anti-union video doesn’t work on two levels. The first is that it is just poorly produced. It reminded me of videos I would watch in class in high school.

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The second problem is that ineffective videos like this tend to leave more questions about unionization than answers. After the mandatory viewing, people not closely involved in the unionization wonder what’s going on.

Who will employees turn to if they want to ask about these issues? Probably a union rep or a co-worker familiar with the issues, not management.

Alternative tactics

There seem to be several schools of thought when it comes to dealing with unionization:

  1. Bust up the union – Do every sneaky, loophole-ridden thing to avoid getting unionized. Fire people, offer promotions to organizers, and do whatever it takes to aggressively avoid it. There are some downsides to this, as well as possibly putting a target on your back, but it isn’t the least effective way.
  2. Ignore it – For a company that has a good workplace, and an organization tries to come in with a weak attempt to unionize, you simply ignore it. Nobody makes mention of it and if it is weak, it may  just go away. This is not necessarily recommended unless you are confident that the unionization attempt is pretty weak.
  3. The company line – If you can’t change anything but still want to play nice with the employees, appeal to their loyalty to the company. Say the company can’t afford a union right now and that it could only lead to more turmoil. The object is to create doubt, but this approach isn’t perfect. If your company is disliked, even by employees, that can mean this appeal is dead in the water.
  4. Accommodate without unions – Put the stage makeup on your CEO and get them in front of your employees and a camera (for remote employees). Say you’re sorry, say you’re going to deal with these issues in a transparent way, give them a direct line to your office and focus your team on fixing those issues that bother them. But, please don’t vote for unions or we won’t be able to do anything outside the negotiated contract.

Of course, my preference is the last one. Don’t waste your budget on bad films and flimsy defenses (that could ultimately fail anyway) and instead focus on fixing issues so that employees don’t feel the need to pay a union to represent themselves. It seems so easy, but for so many, it is far from it.

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UPDATE: Target workers voted to reject the union by a vote of 137-85 on Friday June 17. As The New York Times reported:

The nation’s main union for retail workers lost a unionization vote on Friday at a Target store in Valley Stream, N.Y., in what was an effort to make it the first of Target’s 1,750 stores in the United States to be unionized…

In a statement, the union’s president, Bruce W. Both, said that the workers at the Valley Stream store endured a “campaign of threats, intimidation and illegal acts by Target management,” and that the union would contest the results.”

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
 
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.

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