cartoon by Khalil Bendib
Shopping in a Target store, you know you’re not in Wal-Mart. But the differences
may be mostly skin deep.
Targets are spaciously laid out and full of attractive displays and promotions.
While many people associate Wal-Mart with low-income, rural communities perhaps
dominated by a prison or power plant, life-size photos throughout Target stores
remind you that their customers are a lively, beautiful cast of multi-cultural
“Their image is more upscale, more urban and sophisticated, sort of a
wannabe Pottery Barn,” said Victoria Cervantes, a hospital administrator
and documentary-maker in Chicago who regularly shops at Target. “I’m
not sure if their customers really are more upscale. But that’s the image
they’re going for. They have a very good PR campaign.”
In contrast to this image, however, critics say that in terms of wages
and benefits, working conditions, sweatshop-style foreign suppliers, and effects
on local retail communities, big box Target stores are very much like Wal-Mart,
just in a prettier package.
Of more than 1,400 Target stores employing more than 300,000 people nationwide,
not one has a union. Employees at various stores say an anti-union message and
video is part of the new-employee orientation. At stores in the Twin Cities,
where Target is headquartered, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)
union Local 789 has been trying for several years to help Target employees organize,
with little luck.
“People ask what the difference between Wal-Mart and Target is,”
said UFCW organizer Bernie Hesse. “Nothing, except that Wal-Mart is six
times bigger. The wages start at $7.25 to $7.50 an hour [at Target]. They’ll
say that’s a competitive wage, but they can’t say it’s a living
wage. We know a lot of their managers are telling people, ‘If we find
out you’re involved in organizing a union you’ll get fired.’”
Wal-Mart has about 3,800 stores nationwide and another 2,600 worldwide, employing
about 1.6 million people. Target plans to open at least 600 more stores by 2010,
for a total of about 2,000 in 47 states. Like Wal-Mart, a typical Target sells
a wide range of consumer goods including clothing, household items, office supplies,
toys, sports equipment, furniture, art, and electronics; and the stores often
have photo laboratories and pharmacies. About 160 SuperTargets nationwide also
sell “upscale” groceries, as the company’s website describes
them, and often contain banks, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut Express outlets. Total
revenue was up 12.3 percent in 2005 – $52.6 billion compared to $46.8
billion in 2004.
A survey by the UFCW found that starting wages are similar in Targets and Wal-Marts
-- possibly higher overall at Wal-Marts – and that Target benefits packages
are often harder to qualify for and less comprehensive. (Target’s media
relations department refused to comment on its wages and benefits policies;
individual wages and benefits policies are not included in their annual report.)
“We know that Target and Wal-Mart are constantly checking each other
out and seeing how cheap they can get by,” says a UFCW statement on the
website Targetunion.org, urging Target employees around the country to post
A Target employee who asked that his name and store location be kept secret
said he can barely make ends meet on his salary of $8.40 an hour.
“After three years, I have received less than $1 an hour in raises. I
started at $7.65,” said the worker, adding that he does love his job because
of camaraderie with his co-workers. “We are never compensated and rarely
even recognized for meeting our goals.”
The starting wage he describes would put a single parent with two kids working
full time at Target just slightly above the poverty line; someone with more
children or working fewer hours would fall below the poverty line.
Compare that to Target CEO Robert Ulrich, who earned $23.1 million in 2005,
according to Forbes, making him the second-highest paid CEO in the retail sector.
That’s more than 1300 times as much as the worker we spoke to.
Sweat on the Racks?
Meanwhile a glance at labels on a few racks of stylish $20 cardigans and capri
pants shows that, like Wal-Mart and most major clothing retailers, Target itself
sources its products in India, Indonesia, Guatemala, Mexico, Bangladesh, Kenya,
Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and other low-wage, developing
In October 2005 representatives of a Mexican labor federation protested outside
a Bronx Target to call attention to alleged child labor and illegal worker lockouts
at a Mexican factory that supplies the store’s Halloween costumes.
“The way the global garment industry is, there are so few factories that
respect workers’ rights that there is no way Target gets its clothes from
workplaces where workers’ rights are being respected,” said Allie
Robbins, national organizer of the group United Students Against Sweatshops.
Race to the Bottom
Target doesn’t differ from most major clothing vendors; you usually have
to seek out small specialty companies to find union-made, American-made textiles.
But as one of the country’s major retailers, Target is an industry leader,
fostering and profiting from the U.S.’s general culture of consumerism:
We buy, buy, buy at ever lower prices in a market system sustained by very low-paid,
non-union workforces in impoverished countries.
Even as American consumerism thrives, however, there is growing public awareness
and critique of the problems it spawns. Wal-Mart is becoming a lightning rod
for the public’s increasing dissatisfaction and animosity. A recent study
by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell showed that 63 percent of people
would oppose a Wal-Mart opening in their community. Groups such as Wal-Mart
Watch, several documentarians have harshly critiqued Wal-Mart’s working
conditions and its effects on communities and international labor standards.
But somehow, perhaps because of its relative small size compared to Wal-Mart,
Target has largely avoided negative publicity.
In fact, it benefits from anti-Wal-Mart anger, a fact that isn’t lost
on company officials.
Media reports describe Target executives booing and hissing at a Wal-Mart logo
during sales meetings and calling it the “evil empire.” While communities
often fight tooth and nail against new Wal-Marts, residents usually welcome
Targets, as local governments offer the corporation generous tax breaks and
subsidies to locate in their area.
That is what happened last fall in West St. Paul, Minn., where a new Target
reaped $731,000 in local tax breaks, while 30 miles away, Ham Lake was fighting
Wal-Mart’s efforts to open a superstore. The Target in downtown Minneapolis
received $68 million in public subsidies, according to the Star Tribune newspaper.
In Chicago in 2004, a city-wide coalition formed to oppose two proposed Wal-Marts
and the fight roiled the city council for months. Meanwhile at least three new
Target stores have been built in the metro area in the last several years.
Target definitely works hard on its image. Last summer it became the first
company to sponsor an entire issue of The New Yorker, with 17 pages of ads.
With a 2005 advertising budget of $1.028 billion, it regularly takes out full
page ads in major daily papers and magazines, promoting the company’s
products, and sophisticated image as well as its charity work. The company’s
website says that 96 percent of Americans recognize the Target logo, “more
than the Swoosh or Apple.” Unlike Wal-Mart’s low-budget, cluttered
decor, Target sports artsy, larger-than-life photos of everything from cleaning
products to desserts to women in lingerie. It is the exclusive marketer of specialty
items such as the Roots “retro-futurism” official gear for the 2006
Winter Olympics. Target’s website notes that its average consumer has
a median household income of $55,000, and 43 percent have completed college.
“It’s like they’re trying to be Marshall Fields or something,”
said Chicago high school student Stephanie Evans, shopping for a bikini for
spring break. “But it’s really the same things as at Wal-Mart, just
at higher prices.”
The first Target discount store opened in Roseville, Minnesota, a suburb of
St. Paul, in 1962. It was run by the Dayton Company, which originated in 1902
with a retail store called Goodfellows owned by George Dayton in Minneapolis.
Along with the discount stores, Target Corp. runs Target Financial Services,
which manages the Target REDcard credit card.
Target: We Train the FBI
Perhaps Target’s oddest singularity is the fact that it boasts
one of the nation’s top forensics labs at its company headquarters. A
product of its efforts to stop shoplifting and property destruction at its stores,
its mastery of surveillance and investigative technology and strategy is now
eagerly subscribed to by law enforcement agencies nationwide, including the
FBI. The company provides training for police and federal agents on investigation
and prevention of everything from arson and robbery to smuggling.
Target does more proportionately for the community in the form of community
grants and charity than Wal-Mart does, and spends considerably less boating
about it. According to the company website, which says Target donates more than
$2 million a week to local and national non-profit organizations. The company
gives grants of $1,000 to $3,000 to community organizations, and shoppers can
donate 1 percent of Target REDcard charges to a local school. The website says
more than $154 million has been donated to schools since 1997. The company also
runs Target House, a luxury residential facility in Memphis where families can
stay while their seriously ill children are treated at a nearby medical center.
In comparison, Wal-Mart, with revenue of $288 billion in 2005, donated $200
million (or 7/100ths of a percent) to charities and organizations in 2005, according
to its web site.
While many customers and employees praise Target’s charity efforts, critics
counter that the company would have more positive impact on communities by providing
living wage, stable jobs to local residents.
Following the general trend in retail and the U.S. job market as a whole, Target
relies on part-time workers. This schedule may work well for some students and
retired people, but it contributes to a dearth of full-time, fully benefitted,
stable employment – especially in communities reeling from the store’s
impact on small local businesses.
“If I needed a full time job I couldn’t afford to work here,”
said "Rosa" a 57-year-old who works part time at a St. Paul Target
near her house. (Her name has been changed because she fears retribution.) “It
starts at $7.50 an hour and you only get a 50-cent raise once a year. So how
long will it take you to even get to $10 an hour! You can’t live on that.”
Target’s website says diversity is a core value for employees and customers.
It says Target is above national averages in employing minorities, both in the
overall workforce (21 percent) and managerial positions (38 percent).
But that may depend on the store. Hesse said that some of the many Somalis
refugees employed in the Twin Cities stores complain about cultural insensitivity
“Entry level management people just don’t know how to handle it,
they seem to be insensitive to immigrant workers,” said Hesse. “In
one store, there’s a lot of friction between managers and Somali workers.
They hire these young white boys as managers, and then they run a crew of Somalis
with a very condescending attitude.”
An African-American employee at the flagship Roseville, Minn. store (who asked
that her name not be used for fear of retribution), said she feels as if she
constantly suffers racial discrimination. She said there are no black supervisors
on the overnight shift she works. “There are a lot of Somalis working
on the overnight shift, but no Somali team leader.” She said she is tired
of young white “team leaders” repeatedly telling her to work faster
or do things differently.
“It’s the same conversation over and over,” said the middle-aged
woman. “They treat us like we’re kids. And they’ll approach
you in front of other crew members, not in the office or somewhere private.”
She thinks she was unfairly given a document from management saying she needed
to increase her work speed.
“I feel like I was discriminated against because I’m black,”
she said. “I talked to white co-workers who I was working side by side
with, and I could see I was working just as fast as them. I asked them if they
had to sign the paper [from management] saying they were too slow and they did
not. The majority who got the "guidance" slips were Somali or African-American
Beat the Clock
Workers generally complain about a pressurized and patronizing work atmosphere
where they are constantly pressed to work harder and faster and at the same
time to act cheery and invested in the store’s success. The company’s
website boasts that workers will respond with “cheetah-like” speed
within 60 seconds to customer calls on the red phones throughout the store.
Rosa said employees are constantly exhorted to get shoppers to sign up for
Target REDcards; some stores have weekly quotas. “They’ll have little
employee promotions, it’s so ridiculous, you’ll get candy or a liter
of pop if you get two people to sign up,” she said.
She said the store is generally understaffed and workers are expected to do
numerous jobs at the same time.
“You’re running around, feeling like you’re being pulled
in every direction,” she said. “There’s never enough people
on the sales floor. You’re getting calls to come up to the cash register,
to do pulls [of merchandise] in the back room, to deal with returns at guest
services, all at once. And the whole time you’re constantly picking up
and folding stuff, getting things off the floor. At my age it’s a really
hard day, on your feet the whole time on these linoleum floors. I’m aching
when I get home. I have to take Ibuprofen just to be able to sleep.”
John Hayden had a similar experience working in a Target distribution center
near his home in Oconomowoc, Wisc. After quitting his Target job in 2002, he
was diagnosed with a hernia which he blames on lifting up to 700 boxes a day.
“It was hard work,” said Hayden, who was in his late 50s at the
time. “We never produced enough to keep the middle managers happy. I think
they plan it that way – they always want more.”
Could it Be Different?
In today’s market, could retail really be any different? Fair labor advocates
think so. Hesse notes that in several unionized grocery stores in the Twin Cities,
hourly wages hover around $13 to $17 an hour, roughly double Target’s.
Now SuperTarget’s sale of groceries threatens the survival of union grocery
Even other major big box retailers have managed to pay significantly higher
wages and achieve higher employee retention. The prices at Costco Wholesale
Corp., the nation’s fifth largest retailer, are competitive with those
at Target and Wal-Mart, but it pays full-time employees an average of around
$16 an hour along with generous health benefits.
Costco pulls this off by offering fewer brands of each item, keeping infrastructure
costs low and forgoing advertising; and the company also benefits financially
from low employee turnover. Labor advocates also note that The Container Store
is known for decent wages and good working conditions.
“We’ve turned into a nation of consumers, not citizens,”
said Hesse. “We need to make retailers and employers bring back the old
social contract where if you work hard and give them full time, they have to
treat you with some degree of dignity and pay you enough that you don’t
need to worry about your basic needs all the time.”