- Associated Press - Sunday, July 17, 2011

NEW YORK — Target is having labor pains.

Until recently, the Minneapolis-based discounter largely avoided the labor disputes and public relations challenges that have plagued Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer. But now Target could face the same union opposition as its much bigger rival.

Target had its first union election in two decades in June amid allegations by workers of skimpy wages and reduced hours at a Valley Stream, N.Y., store. The measure failed after Target suggested to workers that the store might not survive if they voted to unionize. The dispute is widely seen as a precursor to a national battle.

“There is no question that this is becoming a hostile, caustic battle of wills,” said Donald W. Schroeder, a Mintz Levin labor lawyer who has represented corporations in labor battles for 18 years.

While Wal-Mart Stores Inc. remains the biggest target for labor groups as the largest U.S. private employer, unions are increasingly setting their sights on the nation’s No. 3 retailer as it adds locations across the country and aggressively expands into the heavily unionized grocery business.

In addition to New York, more labor disputes are expected in big cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis, where Target is based and is the second-largest employer behind the Mayo Clinic.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s Local 1500 New York chapter, which organized the election in the Valley Stream store, says Target intimidated workers and it intends to contest the election results and ask the government to order a new one.

The UFCW’s Local 1189 in St. Paul, Minn., near Minneapolis, is using the New York election as an impetus to recharge its campaign, which failed a couple of years because it didn’t collect enough votes.

“I was inspired. Once we heard that Local 1500 had been building toward an election, we thought we better ramp it up,” said Bernie Hesse, director of special projects at UFCW’S St. Paul chapter. “We have been intrigued with what a national campaign may look like.”

Target Corp. declined to comment on its strategies to counter an escalating labor fight, but spokeswoman Molly Snyder said the company does not intimidate workers or have any “companywide efforts to restructure or reduce hours.”

“Our emphasis is on creating a workplace environment where our team members don’t want or need union representation,” she said.

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