A video made for employees of Target, titled “Think Hard: Protect Your Signature,” warning employees about the potential perils of signing a union support card, has been shared widely online as of late. Many viewers have greeted it as an entertaining (yet infuriating) example of the condescending, misleading, and “cheesy” way big business is trying to convey its anti-union message to workers. Indeed, there is some sweet irony in putting “Think Hard” in the title of a film rife with falsehoods.
As a weapon in this notoriously anti-union employer’s wage-depression arsenal, this short video is an opportunity. It is an example of both the specific talking-points used by employers to discourage organizing and the general assumptions employers harbour concerning low-wage and precarious workers.
Labour activists should take this opportunity to make an appraisal of the narrative we create when building support for collective action. The video should be treated by activists not just as a long, patronizing comedy sketch, but as a primer on employer propaganda and how it can be overcome with honest, accurate information. With that in mind I will critically examine the four major themes of the video.
“Us Against Them”
The strongest underlying theme conveyed by this video is that a union would be a third party, and that the relationship between Target and its employees is one of openness, reciprocity, and respect. On one side, an image is painted of rigid rules passed down by writ from self-interested union dictators. On the other is a “partner, standing by to help you out”.
Fortunately, this narrative—a real life example of Orwellian doublespeak—is wholly untrue.
Unions, while not perfect, are far more democratic than any employer could be. The vast majority of union representatives, from the shop stewards on the work floor all the way to the leadership, are elected. The members who sit across the table from the employer in bargaining are elected. Contracts are subject to the approval of the majority of the membership, as are strikes. This means the “union rules” that Target would have us so afraid of are rules that members have pushed their bargaining committee to negotiate for. Union finances are largely open to scrutiny from members, and there are myriad avenues for members to get involved and influence the trajectory of the union. When a union is functioning well, the membership is not only in control of the union, it IS the union.
Representatives and employees of the union are directly responsible to the organization’s members. In fact, as the Target video so helpfully points out, unions are legally obliged to work in the interest of their members, and if they fail to do so, members can seek legal recourse in the form of a duty of fair representation complaint.
For their part, how democratic are employers, especially large retail chains like Target? Are managers accountable to employees? Are their rules voted on, reaching assent only when a majority of employees approve? Are their rules applied equally to both sides of the employment relationship? Is Target legally obligated to work in the interest of its employees?
The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “no”. Target’s only obligation is to its shareholders; to make them money by keeping costs, like wages, down. It is not surprising that Target doesn’t want to have to follow a set of rules, agreed to by employees, that govern the way it treats workers.
“There are no guarantees”
Another prevalent theme in Target’s propaganda video is its insistence that forming a union means venturing into uncharted territory. “They’re making promises they may not ever be able to keep.” The existence of this uncertainty is somewhat true.
There is only one guarantee that workers have when forming a union: their bargaining power will improve. They will have a collective voice, supported by the infrastructure of an organization whose primary objective is to improve wages and working conditions.
As a collective unit, working people will always be in a stronger position relative to their employer than as individuals. A stronger bargaining position doesn’t guarantee any particular wage rate or other condition of employment (unless signing onto an established collective agreement), but it does make improvements possible that would otherwise not be.
“Dues! Dues! Dues!”
While they aren’t concerned when employees join bowling leagues or buy groceries, Target seems incredibly interested in its employees’ “hard earned paycheque” when it comes to paying union dues.
Target has an army of lawyers and business professionals whose jobs are to keep costs as low as possible on things like wages and workplace safety.
Why shouldn’t its employees have access to the same infrastructure? By pooling resources, working people can obtain the tools needed to win and enforce workplace improvements. Dues pay for the offices, administrators, business people, and lawyers that work on behalf of members.
What’s more, dues are entirely tax deductible. That means that every penny paid into the union from members is returned to them when they file their taxes. In effect, members receive all the benefits of being in a union at no cost.
Among these half-truths and omissions, the video comes close to telling a flat-out lie when it states, “You may find yourself unionized and paying dues without ever getting a chance to vote.” This could hardly be more untrue. While the process varies between jurisdictions, generally, a large number of workers need to sign support cards, then vote “yes” for the union, then elect their bargaining committee, then vote “yes” for a collective agreement—all before a single penny is paid in dues.
Finally, it is no surprise that Target does not mention the union wage premium. Across Canada, union workers make an average of about $5.00/hour more than non-union workers. The corresponding number for Ontario is more than $6.00, and for Nova Scotia more than $6.25. Non-union workers are effectively paying massive “dues”—in the form of lower wages—without receiving any benefits.
“Things are Good”
Target’s video spends an inordinate amount of time trying to convince employees that they love their jobs. Aside from the “fast” part, the “fun, fast, and friendly” atmosphere that is endlessly repeated in the video is a fiction. Statistically , the majority of retail employees experience very low job satisfaction. A cursory glance at ratemyemployer.ca or one of the many retail worker blogs shows why: working retail sucks. The work is demanding, the hours are crummy, and you’re stuck between cranky customers and demanding managers. It may be fast, but it is hardly fun and friendly.
Target wants its employees to adopt this fiction and believe that if they organized into a union they would be sacrificing the “fast, fun, and friendly” atmosphere. With a union, the workplace would certainly change: breaks would be respected, scheduling would be less sporadic, expectations would be more reasonable, and labour standards would be abided by.
The above are only four central themes of this video, embedded in its glaring disdain for worker agency and ability. It offers many more omissions, half-truths, and mischaracterizations about unions and employment relationships that are trumpeted by most employers who seek to expel any tendency for workers to organize. Each of the talking points provides labour activists with an opportunity. Armed with information, organizers can attack these arguments for what they are: falsehoods designed to scare workers into staying in a position of weakness vis-à-vis their employers. Activists seeking to win fair wages and better working conditions from employers can use this video to heed Target’s ironic advice: “think hard”.