Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Welcome to the Servant Economy

I recently started a part-time job at Staples. It is hardly glamorous work. I spend most of the day waiting on prissy, condescending customers who routinely drop $100- $400 on ink cartridges and fancy paper. Most of them pay with credit cards issued by Bank of America, TD Bank, Wells Fargo and other noxious "too big to fail" banks. I get $8.25 an hour.

Did I mention I have a Master's degree...? Welcome to the servant economy.

For a retail chain known for its catchy promotional slogan, "That was easy!" it is actually absurdly difficult to get a job at Staples. I had to come in for two (yes, two) interviews before I was offered a job. The store's lengthy online application, like so many applications these days, redundantly asks applicants to regurgitate the same personal information over and over, in addition to attaching a resume, a cover letter, and the names of three references.

I have worked in retail before, but the biggest difference with Staples is the incessant product-pushing. As a Sales Associate, I am expected to constantly hawk Staples' Customer Rewards Program, coupons and sales items, and, especially, product warranties.

As readers are likely aware, product warranties--or "extended service plans" as Staples calls them--are almost always a rip-off. They are solely designed to earn the store extra money--a fact candidly acknowledged in one of the training videos. By way of example, I purchased a "lifetime warranty" with my 2006 Toyota Corolla which I have never used--mostly due to the fact Toyota's vehicles are already reliable, quality cars to begin with. That additional money for the warranty was essentially a bonus for the Prime Toyota dealer that sold me the car.

My "training" lasted two days. On the first day, I "shadowed" another cashier on the front-end, who essentially gave me a crash-course in every aspect of the job. The second training day consisted of eight hours of watching poorly produced instructional videos in a small, secluded room. Each video was followed by a quiz which must be passed before advancing to the next one. I found the quiz on preventing money laundering especially tricky, though oddly educational.

The lack of any actual, manager-oriented training does not surprise me. Employers have virtually given up on training new workers. Their excuse is they will invest all that time and effort into training a new employee, only for her to promptly defect to a better-paying position at a competitor company. In my case, this reasoning is absurd. I am already overqualified for the job to begin with. No amount of cashier training--which I already had anyway--is going to change that. As a result, you basically learn most aspects of the job on the job, which, in a retail environment, means for the first few weeks my line had lots of angry, impatient customers because I was constantly calling the manager for help.

Of course, there is an obvious solution to the difficulty in retaining new hires: Pay them a decent wage. As Wharton School professor, Peter Cappelli wrote in The New York Times last summer ("If There's a Gap, Blame it on the Employer," 08/03/2012):

Have you [employers] tried raising wages? If you could get what you want by paying more, the problem is just that you are cheap. The fact that I cannot find the car I want at the price I want to pay does not constitute a car shortage, yet a large number of employers claiming they face a skills shortage admit that the problem is getting candidates to accept their wage rates.

Then there was the obligatory anti-union video.

This fine piece of propaganda--devoid, incidentally, of one shred of factual evidence--is remarkably similar to anti-union training videos for Home Depot and Target. (Staples, like Target, also touts its "Open Door Policy" in place of a union.)

All three videos go out of their way to paint labor unions as some antiquated, sinister force bent on deceiving workers and undermining their "sovereignty." My favorite part was when the actors disingenuously note the steep decline in union membership in recent decades--most of which is due to massive union-busting campaigns by the corporate retail sector.

The employee-actors go to considerable length to insist Staples' employees have frequently "turned down" union membership. Yet, in the month I have now worked at Staples I have not once been approached by a union representative. I imagine the same goes for my co-workers. How can you "turn down" an opportunity you are never presented with?

In addition to my cashiering duties, I am also responsible for shelf-stocking, processing returned or damaged items, taking out the garbage, and cleaning the front-end and bathrooms. At times I feel like a glorified janitor. When I come home, my back is stiff from standing and lifting things all day.

Staples currently ranks #122 on the Fortune 500 list (topping Kohl's, Nike and Kimberly-Clark, but behind Halliburton, Time Warner and McDonald's). This year, the company had revenues of $24.7 billion. One would think, with that kind of money, they could afford to pay their workers more than a mere dollar above the federal minimum wage.

While I still do not regret my education (unlike most Americans, I do not believe the singular goal of college should be career advancement), it is hard not to resent my situation. I think back at all those teachers throughout high school who constantly assured me and my classmates we could do or be "anything you want," so long as we "work hard," and "apply yourself."

Looking back on it, I feel stupid for naively believing such horseshit in the first place. My generation has been sold-out to a voracious, oligarchic corporate state that responds exclusively to the whims of Wall Street and the corporate sector while leaving poor and working-class citizens to fend for themselves. And if we do not radically shift course soon, we will all be working dead-end jobs like mine.

George Carlin was right: "It's called the American Dream, 'cause you have to be asleep to believe in it."

Dear American public: Please continue buying cheap crap you do not need from corporate big-box chains. Your restless consumerism is currently paying my bills. Thank you.

In the event Staples fires me for posting this blog, I may finally have the time to write that book I have been dreaming of for years... In the meantime, feel free to make a donation--via the button on the right--to keep Guerrilla Press going. Any amount is greatly appreciated and, I think, a worthy investment.

No comments:

Post a Comment