The following is an interview with New River Workers Power based in Christiansburg, VA. NRWP has helped to organize a strike of Target workers in the New River Valley area with the demand to terminate an abusive supervisor and for recognition from the company. They have already won their first demand. The interview was conducted because the strike raises important questions around the forms of working class organization in general that emerge from the present social condition and their relationship to political organization and should be seen as part and parcel of broader thinking about the strategic and historical context that militants and organizers need to base our activity.
Tell us about Christiansburg, VA. What are the social and political conditions of the town and the general area, e.g. the racial and class composition, how people make ends meet, etc? In what ways have these manifested at the Target at which you are working and how does it reflect or contradict these conditions?
Christiansburg is a relatively small town of 20,000 people. It is located in the Appalachian region of Virginia, and as such it is very white in racial composition – around 93 percent – the next highest racial group is African Americans at 4.8 percent. On a county level the Asian population rivals the African American population at around 4 to 7 percent depending on which source one looks at – this is due to the nearby university, Virginia Tech. Based on census data the workforce is around 50 percent. Virginia Tech is the economic powerhouse of the area and most industries in the area are built around it, including the service sector. The service sector – retail, food, healthcare – is the largest industry in the area. Education workers are the largest single sector at 30 percent. Healthcare is second at 20 percent, but if retail and food are combined it is on par with Healthcare. All other industries are in the single digits in terms of percentages of the workforce in the area. The region is generally conservative, while around Virginia Tech and Blacksburg it is considered more “liberal”. There is an animosity between Blacksburg as a college town and the rest of the county and region. The class divide is also largely reflected in this as well, with the local rich mostly concentrated around Virginia Tech. It’s important to view this area on a county or multi county level to understand the dynamics at play rather than just focusing on Christiansburg. This area is usually referred to as the New River Valley.
In regards to Target a lot of these facts carry over into the workplace. There is a division among the workers on the basis of age and education. Many younger workers are also going to the local colleges – the nearby Radford University and New River Community College are the more working class colleges – trying to get trained in skilled labor positions, such as nursing. But older workers seem to not have college degrees or are not able to find jobs related to their degrees that might result in higher pay. There also is division on the basis of locals vs non-locals.
What are the conversations of workers at Target like and the general political atmosphere? How have recent political developments, for instance, the election of Trump, the anti-immigrant backlash, and the rise of white nationalist politics entered into those discussions?
Conversations generally are benign, related to pop culture and consumerism. Apoliticalness and apathy tend to be the political atmosphere, which relates to the level of conversation between workers. But there are private conversations between workers who trust one another about more personal issues – which always have political connotations to them. There will be some discussion around worker disgruntlement towards management dealing with workplace arrangements, feelings of being slighted, undervalued as workers, etc. but nothing overly political. More explicit political conversations have had to be initiated by our members, such as what happened in Charlottesville – many workers were totally unaware it was even happening. Some expressed disbelief there still were Nazis active. Conversations around the confederate monuments usually defaulted into the espousal of the monuments as “history” and a general centrist line that viewed both the Left and the Right as two “extreme” forces equally as bad as the other.
What are the prior organizing experiences of the different workers in the committee? How have those prior experiences helped to shape the direction of the organizing? How have those with less organizing experience developed during this campaign?
Personally I have been involved in organizing around the state prison system, labor organizing via the IWW, and local issues in the Black-majority city of Richmond, especially around public education. Out of this I have come to understand how crucial the issue of white supremacy is when trying to organize on the basis of a class politics. The issue of patriarchy has also routinely shown itself in organizing efforts primarily through problematic or abusive behavior of men activists towards women and queer activists. It has been one of the primary obstacles to building sustainable mass organization. Coming back to an area that feels much more homogeneously white makes the issue of white supremacy harder to handle in many ways as the local working class doesn’t have exposure to racial oppression and seeing the ways it manifests on a mass structural level, like it does in Richmond. Of course, with even a very small local Black population we see how white supremacy manifests economically, where the poverty rate is double that of the white working class here. My hopes with this organizing campaign have been to show the necessary aspects of organizing and how to maximize effectiveness with small numbers of people.
What is significant about the minority unionist approach the committee has taken? Why have you chosen the specific demands to fire the supervisor Daniel Butler and for recognition of your committee? What would this recognition look like? Why not pursue a traditional union campaign or simply file Unfair Labor Practice complaints?
Minority unionism is a default starting point when engaging in labor organizing where over ninety percent of the local workforce is non-union and has no direct experience with the practice of labor organizing, or any working class organizing in general. The specific demand of firing the boss seemed the most realistic in terms of a winnable demand, sexual harassment is not an easy issue to dismiss, and the fears of a lawsuit are very real to these corporations. The second demand of recognition of the workers committee was one that we knew would not be realized, but its purpose was more so the present the idea to our workers that they need to be organized independently and outside of the HR channels of Target, and we based this on the fact the management and internal processes of Target have actually prevented holding the boss Daniel Butler accountable for his multiple actions in the past. One could think of the demands in terms of the first as negation and the second as affirmation. People around here have a negative connotation towards unions – which are not entirely unreasonable – the fear of having more bureaucracy enter the workplace, the loss of wages to the dues structures, and a lack of accountability or active participation from the unions are all real concerns. We are working to sidestep this issue by rather having the rank and file know their rights to engage in concerted activity and have them directly steer any collective efforts. To try to push a union drive strategy would be counterproductive to our efforts of mobilizing workers and trying to get them to have a sense of their own autonomous power, rather than being relegated to a secondary role and instrumentalized by the mainstream unions. So for us the main issue isn’t to have a formal recognition of a Target workers committee, but more so a de facto recognition that will be forced upon the Target corporation by the workers taking direct action. A formal recognition can only follow such a period, not precede it, and that formal recognition has to be determined entirely by the workers themselves if that is something they want or not. Personally I think there is greater flexibility provided to workers by remaining a de facto organization rather than a de jure organization – which comes with more ways in which workers can be sanctioned by the corporations.
Why is it important to focus on the sexual harassment and racism of this supervisor? Why not exclusively focus on issues that affect everyone, like wages or health benefits?
Again, these issues were the most potent and tangible to the workers, and the easiest to rally workers behind, because unlike a demand for higher wages or health benefits, Target is legally liable for not enforcing these standards as defined by the federal law. It is much easier to dismiss those demands which these corporations are in no way obligated to meet. We can see this highlighted in the Fight for Fifteen organizing efforts, which are largely centered around optics and media attention for mass mobilizations, and which are largely being channeled into electoral struggles to press states and the federal government to pass legislation to increase the minimum wage – granted there has been some gains on this nationally, but its largely being driven by the unions and the left current within the Democratic Party. I don’t think it is really making workers feel a sense of their own power nor how they can reclaim the workplace, let alone the idea of a militant working class movement that seeks to destroy their exploitation and oppression.
Under what circumstances did the strike committee come together and what do you call yourselves? What questions or barriers did your group have to face in the beginning? Was there any prior history of organizing or struggle at the store that parlayed itself into the current campaign? What is the formal structure of the committee? How are decisions made? What is the culture of the committee like?
This particular struggle emerged organically from prior efforts at organizing workers around housing in the local trailer parks against slumlords. It was the contact we made with some workers in the trailer parks that led us to going after Butler. We were not looking to do this initially, but the stories of this manager kept surfacing as we were working on the housing front. One of our primary contacts also faced the threat of eviction if we kept pressing for a tenants union, due to late payment of rent. Once this became apparent, we decided to wait for this contact to become free from that threat, and it was during this time we shifted focus to going after the Target manager. NRWP, in a lot of ways, is more so an idea rather than a significant organization, and has had a revolving cast, mainly of college students cycling in and out with only a handful of us remaining constant in the organizing project. The politics of the group have been rooted in a revolutionary leftist politics, some identify as communist, others anarchist, or socialist, we have even had some who might consider themselves more as democratic socialist or social democrat, but our primary emphasis as been on active struggle for the purposes of building independent working class organization and power. The more theoretical aspect to that concept has been something we have had a hard time trying to get deeper collective unity around. We are hoping this particular struggle and process will help facilitate the development of that and highlight both the commonality and ideological differences between members of the group. We are not trying to enforce a strict ideological line a priori, but seek to build practical and ideological unity through actual struggle.
The Target workers committee is entirely embryonic at this point, the strike really functioned as the public launch of an organizing campaign at the store. Action is the best propaganda for winning workers over, we wanted to show that you could use these tactics, win demands, and still keep you job, all of which we were successful at – so far. We still remain relatively isolated from the rest of the workers, some are hostile to our efforts, probably because they see us as bucking the social hierarchy in the store. Some veteran workers feel as if this should have been their call rather than ours, but we did have several veteran workers participate in this effort just to get to the point of the strike, such as writing testimonies, there was a huge sense of fear for putting down their experiences of abuse by the manager. As far as we known this is the first concerted effort by workers in this store to take action without going through the internal channels of Target.
What has been the response by employees at Target since the strike began? How has the broader community responded? In what ways has both lower and upper management reacted? In turn how have all the litany of responses affected the committee?
There are three camps of workers at this point, some sympathetic, some hostile and the larger intermediate category of those who have no strong inclination either way. We relied heavily on outside community support and support from abroad with this campaign. The local left is largely liberal and their typical practice is one of protest politics with no real stakes at play in their efforts. We tend to view them as assuming a rearguard role to our efforts on the front line. The united front was an important strategy we utilized in the build up to this. We wanted as broad of support as possible, and we got that, which entailed support from local Democrat politicians running for office, the mainstream unions, local Greens, and the local DSA chapter. The Left in our area, much like in general, is a marginal force, and there is a variety of reasons for that, but the issue in which we based our action around is one that has a public consensus on – that sexual harassment is unacceptable.
We were concerned that the management might have caught wind of our efforts months prior to the strike. Through our page we posted the worker testimonies, but made them as anonymous as possible without identifying where the issue was coming from. But when we actually went to march on the bosses to deliver the strike letter it was confirmed by lower management we had induced panic among the entire store management, and as the mainstream unions turned out in greater number over the course of the five days we think they became even more concerned – they thought this was the launch of a union drive at their store. They quickly started giving anti-union speeches to the workers in the store as we were on strike. The regional manager came down to the store from day one of the strike and on. The head boss Butler was put on a leave of absence after the second day and still remains absent from the store as the Target corporation is conducting its investigation. Lower management were the foot soldiers of the corporation as we leafleted at the store entrance. At first they recognized our right to do so, but as things progressed they took greater and greater measures to try to minimize our efforts at reaching out to the customers. Enforcing the 20 foot rule, we made them measure out 20 feet with a measuring tape, then they shifted gears into harassing us to get off store property with vague threats if we didn’t leave, that never translated into any real action, the cops never told us we were trespassing nor threatened to arrest us. Some management, despite being aggressive towards us, eventually confided in us that they hoped we would succeed at getting rid of Butler. Ever since we returned to work we have not once had any in-depth conversations with either the store management or the corporate management about our demands or the threats of discipline.
Our main efforts at this time are to consolidate the workers who are supporters and really try to flesh out this committee and see how far we can take it.
How will the strike be able to continue? What kind of support do you all give each other or get from outside the workplace? How can others support your strike?
As of now the strike has been called off. We are awaiting the decision of the Target corporation with its investigation of Butler. Many workers who did not participate in the strike or the lead up to it have a very hard time imagining that Butler will be allowed to return. If this ends up not being the case we are more than willing to go back on strike and exploit the fact Target is willing to protect an abuser over the well being of the workers. I think that is a situation they don’t want to create and know it is a real threat to them and their public image if they don’t follow through with the first demand. The strike fund has been very valuable to us, we helped recuperate lost wages for ourselves in the strike and we have also given a portion of it to other workers who are in need because the store doesn’t pay them enough to cover their costs of living. Other means of support have been realized as well, the phone blast we asked people to participate in was successful, the signal boosting of our strike on social media was successful, the media coverage we were able to garner as a result was also successful. Depending upon what happens in the future we may call upon support from the community and from abroad once again.
What advice do you have for organizers who want to replicate your approach in their own workplaces? It’s still early in the struggle, but what can workers that have no relation to the strike take from this experience?
I think organizers have to be conducting investigation on a local level, not confined to just one workplace. That is how we discovered this particular issue. Investigation is key, finding the most potent antagonisms between workers and their class enemies on the local level is the most advantageous way to build a struggle and actually win. Winning is not something the Left is good at and unless you can win concretely you will have a very hard time gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the working class, and rightfully so. Fighting for wage increases or more general things, while important, are hard to win, until you’ve successfully built up a mass base that can be mobilized to put pressure on whoever the target maybe in your efforts. There are always issues of worker abuse happening everywhere, it’s only a matter of finding them. This is the ammunition in which we use to build independent workers power and organization. We have to show through struggle that the capitalist system is incapable of self regulating, which includes the protection of workers’ rights. It is our job to show that, and by doing this successfully it becomes easier to extrapolate off that to get workers to understand that they need to take the struggle further, and if that can be done without going through the normal channels of liberal politics, we stand the best chance of building a real revolutionary, militant workers movement, where every worker sees that they can struggle in unorthodox and creative ways, gaining a true sense of their political power in the process.