Last week I had the pleasure of attending a roundtable event sponsored by the Workers Lab that focused on the CTUL-Target partnership. CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha which translates to The Center of Workers United in Struggle) is a Minneapolis worker center that, to quote from its own mission statement, “organizes low-wage workers from across the Twin Cities to develop leadership and educate one another to build power and lead the struggle for fair wages, better working conditions, basic respect, and a voice in our workplaces.” Worker centers have emerged in many cities over the past decade to try to improve working conditions outside the parameters of traditional labor law and traditional labor unionism, particularly for workers who fall in gray areas of labor law. For example, the cleaning of retail stores is commonly contracted out to third-party contractors so it is difficult to establish a collective bargaining relationship with the retail chain because technically the janitors do not work for the retailer.
As the result of a fortuitous set of factors, CTUL and Target have formed a unique worker center-corporate partnership that is highlighted by the development and adoption of Target’s Responsible Contractor Policy. There are many aspects of this story worth telling, and CTUL’s website has a lot of information. At a high level, I think it’s a fascinating model. It’s not abdication to the vagaries of the market or one side or the other finding a way to dictate its agenda. It’s not a central authority trying to find one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, it’s a way of creating dialogue among the parties most affected, finding common interests, and striking a balance on challenging issues for which they have conflicting goals. In other words, it’s a new institutional way to create what I’ve called “Employment with a Human Face” by balancing central employer and employee objectives (such as efficiency, equity, and voice).
As I listened to representatives of CTUL, Target, and TakeAction Minnesota describe their roles in this partnership, two things struck me. One, to have a successful partnership requires not just shifting power so that low-paid, immigrant and minority workers have some influence, but it also requires shifting mental models and mindsets. For this to be a productive partnership, Target had to shift from a defensive posture that saw CTUL’s criticism of abusive working conditions by Target’s janitorial services contractors as an attack, to an opportunity for listening, understanding, and ultimately, valuable community engagement. And CTUL had to be willing to adopt a partnership rather than conflictual mindset, too. As I’ve often written and taught about, ideas are important.
The other broad theme that struck me comes down to one word: vacuum. By contracting out its janitorial work, Target had essentially created a legal vacuum where it’s difficult for workers to effectively enforce their legal rights—the avoidance of wage theft, the presence of a safe workplace and workers’ compensation coverage, and the ability to unionize if desired. CTUL essentially filled this vacuum and shifted Target’s terrain of compliance. Because of the vacuum, Target didn’t have a traditional legal compliance concern and could ignore the janitor’s plight, but CTUL raised the specter of negative publicity for Target. So while lawsuits were perhaps not a concern (the traditional focus of corporate “compliance”), harms to the corporate brand became a concern. And Target responded. But this was prompted by a legal vacuum that in simpler times would have been filled by the enforcement of employment and labor law.
Another aspect to this vacuum was connected to remarks by TakeAction Minnesota, a community organizing coalition of progressive organizations. TakeAction Minnesota said that it had learned from CTUL that transformational shifts aren’t about a single issue win or just getting to the table, they are about shifting power, dealing directly with employers, getting a deal with enforcement mechanisms, and recognizing that there won’t be agreement on every single issue. Wait a minute, this is classic industrial relations thinking, and labor law promotes labor unions for exactly these reasons. But for whatever reason, unions are unable to be successful in certain sectors. A vacuum has been created, and it was striking to me that without even realizing the parallel, TakeAction Minnesota was highlighting exactly what unions used to do. In the areas of the economy with such vacuums, new organizations like CTUL and new partnerships like the one with Target are needed in order to create employment with a human face, and to create employment relationships that are WIN-WIN-WIN: relationships that serve workers and their families (win #1), organizations (win #2), and society (win #3).