Archive for the ‘Discrimination’ Category

Targeting Target

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Logo of the UFCW's Target campaign

The news of a union organizing drive at a group of Target Corporation stores in the New York City area raises the tantalizing possibility that the master of cheap chic may finally be knocked off its pedestal.

For years, Target has used its stylish image to obscure the fact that many of its employment and other practices are not significantly different from those of its scandal-ridden rival, Wal-Mart. It’s even managed to get itself included on a list of the “world’s most ethical corporations.”

Target’s stores, like those of Wal-Mart’s U.S. operations, are entirely non-union, and the company intends to keep them that way. The New York Times account of the organizing drive has Jim Rowader, Target’s vice president for labor relations, spouting the usual corporate rhetoric about how a union (the UFCW) would undermine the supposed trust that the company has built up with its workers. BNA’s Labor Relations Week (subscription-only) reports that Target is subjecting workers to captive meetings “conducted by store management in an attempt to dissuade workers from seeking union representation.”

Since no representation elections have been held yet, it is unclear whether Target will follow the lead of Wal-Mart in eliminating the jobs of those who dare to vote in favor of a union.

Target does not have a reputation quite as abhorrent as that of Wal-Mart when it comes to other employment practices, but neither is its record untarnished.  It has been accused of subjecting its largely part-time workforce to the same abuses—inadequate wages, restrictions on health coverage, overtime violations, etc.—seen among other big-box retailers. Though not as often as Wal-Mart, Target has shown up on lists prepared by state governments of the employers with the most workers or their dependents receiving taxpayer-funded healthcare benefits. Target has fought against living wage campaigns, most notably in Chicago in 2006, when it threatened to cancel plans for two new stores in the city unless Mayor Richard Daley vetoed a wage ordinance (which he did).

Target has also faced accusations relating to the treatment of minority applicants and employees. In 2007 the company paid a total of more than $1.2 million to settle cases brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involving alleged racial discrimination in hiring in Wisconsin and a racially hostile environment in Pennsylvania.

There have been controversies involving the treatment of workers by Target suppliers and contractors, as well.  In 2002 Target was one of a group of retailers that together paid $20 million to settle class-action lawsuits charging them with permitting sweatshop conditions at factories run by their suppliers in Saipan, part of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific. A 2006 report by SOMO, a Dutch research center on transnational corporations, documented other instances in which Target garment suppliers were reported to be abusing workers and the retailer did little in response.

Target has a history of hiring janitorial contractors for its U.S. stores that tend to engage in rampant wage theft. In 2004 one such contractor, Global Building Services, paid $1.9 million to settle an overtime-violation case brought by the federal government on behalf of immigrant workers.  In 2009 another Target cleaning contractor, Prestige Maintenance USA, settled an overtime lawsuit for up to $3.8 million.

Labor practices are not the only area in which Target’s accountability record falls short. Earlier this year, the company had to pay $22.5 million to settle civil charges that its operations throughout California had violated laws relating to the dumping of hazardous wastes. Target has had a good record on gay rights, though last year the company found itself at the center of a controversy after it was revealed to have contributed to a business PAC which in turn contributed to a gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota who campaigned against gay marriage (among other reactionary positions).  Target later apologized.

And then there’s the matter of subsidies. Like Wal-Mart, Target has extracted lucrative tax breaks and other forms of financial assistance from many of the communities where it has built stores or distribution centers. One of its more audacious efforts was a proposal for a $1.7 billion mixed-use project in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, for which Target wanted more than $20 million in property tax abatements and a public contribution of $60 million for infrastructure costs. Despite seeking all this taxpayer assistance, Target demanded a waiver from the city’s living-wage policy for many contract and part-time workers who would be employed at the site.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Target, aside from its style, is that it is much smaller than Wal-Mart. Its total revenues are only about one-sixth of the worldwide sales (and less than one-quarter of U.S. sales) of the Bentonville behemoth. Target’s workforce of 355,000, all in the United States, is dwarfed by Wal-Mart’s domestic headcount of 1.4 million and another 700,000 abroad. Target thus has a much smaller impact on overall labor practices and the global supply chain.

What impact it does have is not salubrious. Now that it is facing some union pressure, let’s hope Target breaks from Wal-Mart and decides that it is makes sense to treat its workers with as much respect as its customers.

NOTE: Speaking of subsidies, the Subsidy Tracker database I created for Good Jobs First has just been expanded and now has more than 65,000 entries covering 154 subsidy programs in 37 states.

Rev. Wright May be Right About Race–in Corporate America

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

Barack Obama made a heroic effort this week to defuse the racial tensions caused by the attention now being given to fiery sermons once delivered by his pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In order to do that, Obama gave a speech that acknowledged the legitimacy of Rev. Wright’s indictment of racism in America while simultaneously arguing that such discrimination was to a significant extent a thing of the past. Obama said: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made…”

It’s often taken for granted that the corporate world is one arena in which such progress has clearly taken place, but a recent announcement by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission undermines that assumption. The EEOC announced that during the last fiscal year complaints about racial discrimination in the private sector were up 12 percent, reaching the highest level since 1994. This was part of an overall rise of 9 percent in discrimination cases of all kinds.

Last week, the EEOC announced its latest settlement of a racial discrimination case:

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today announced the settlement of a race and national origin harassment lawsuit for $1.9 million and significant remedial relief against Allied Aviation Services, Inc. on behalf of African American and Hispanic workers who were the targets of racial slurs, graffiti, cartoons, and hangman’s nooses at a facility in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. The company identifies itself at the “largest American domestically owned provider of fueling services to the commercial aviation industry.”

The EEOC charged in the case that African American and Hispanic employees were subjected to a racially hostile work environment consisting of verbal and other abuse by their co-workers on a daily basis. Racial graffiti, including swastikas and the N-word, were commonplace and in plain sight in employee restrooms, on fuel tanks, and written on aircraft. An offensive cartoon belittling a Hispanic worker was placed under glass on a manager’s desk for months. Additionally, there was a so-called “hit list” targeting blacks as well as references to the “back of the bus” and “going back to Africa.” Also, a white employee married to an African American was subjected to racial abuse.

A scan of EEOC’s press release archive shows a series of other cases involving the failure of corporations to address racial problems in their workplaces, including some in which the problem was management itself. Last month, the giant investment company Vanguard Group agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a retaliation lawsuit brought by the Commission, which “had charged that following an African American employee’s complaints of race discrimination, Vanguard subjected him to a series of adverse employment actions culminating in his termination.”

And the month before that, the EEOC announced it had settled a race discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against Lockheed Martin, the country’s largest military contractor. The company agreed to pay $2.5 million and provide other relief “on behalf of an African American electrician who was subjected to a racially hostile work environment at several job sites nationwide – including threats of lynching and the ‘N-word.’”

During 2007, the companies involved in the settlement of race discrimination cases with the EEOC included Ford Motor, Target Corp., the Walgreen drug store chain and AK Steel. And all this is from an agency that critics such as Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski charge has been falling down on the job. There were also race discrimination cases in which the EEOC was not involved, including one in which FedEx agreed last April to pay $55 million to settle charges that it systematically paid black and Latino workers less than whites.

Rev. Wright’s rhetoric may not be in fashion these days, but the racism he railed against is far from extinct in Corporate America.