Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sixteen Tons

...And what do you get? Not much, it turns out.

One of the first jobs I had growing up in Kennebunk, Maine, was cashiering at the locally-owned grocery store, Garden Street Market. I started working in the Produce Department when I was about 15 and continued through college.

The job was hardly glamorous. It involved a lot of standing for long periods, muscle and back pain from the repetitive motions, and, at times, hostile, unruly customers.

But the store owner was a decent man who treated his workers with respect and dignity. My co-workers were genuinely warm, earnest people, many of whom became good friends. And the pay, as far as retail jobs go, wasn't all that bad. By the time I left, I was, as a full-time employee, making close to $9 an hour. I even received a modest health insurance package.

In 2010, Garden Street Market closed when a massive Hannaford moved in just down the street. The owner did not even attempt to compete with the chain store.

His only demand of Hannaford was they offer jobs to any of store's employees who wanted one. Those who now work at Hannaford, I am told, are not happy with the big store or the management. One former co-worker, who was always so chatty and social with the townspeople who came through her line, laments the cashiers are forbidden from talking to customers at length beyond the standard, "How are you today?" and "Did you find everything you were looking for?"

While Garden Street was never truly my "dream job," I still occasionally reminisce about my time working there. I was treated with dignity, respect and, generally, received an honest wage for honest work. What more, really, can any worker ask for?

Alas, many retail and service workers are not afforded the same basic treatment. Local, independently-owned mom & pop stores like Garden Street Market are rapidly going the way of the manufacturing industry. In fact, Hannaford Brothers (founded in Portland, Maine; now owned by the European, Delhaize Corporation) is currently the largest employer in the state. L.L. Bean, Walmart, TD Bank, Maine Medical Center, and tax-dodger Bath Iron Works, round out the top 10.

According to an in-depth jobs report in the Maine Sunday Telegram (June, 2013), the jobs with the most expected growth are almost exclusively in retail, fast-food, or customer service. (Health care also ranks high here in Maine due to the state's aging population, the oldest in the nation.) And, contrary to popular belief, these jobs are not primarily held by teenagers or college students. A recent report by the National Employment Law Project finds the average age of fast-food workers is 29. More than 26 percent of them, according to the report, have children and subsist on poverty wages.

The average retail worker earns around $8.25 an hour--a mere dollar above the federal minimum wage. Most must rely on public services such as foodstamps, WIC, or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) checks to make ends meet. These retail giants' stinginess toward their workers costs taxpayers nearly $7 billion annually according to researchers at the University of California, Berkley. The fast-food industry alone, made more than $7.4 billion in profits last year.

Indeed, this is another blatant form of corporate welfare, which I wrote about earlier this year. We are essentially paying these companies' employees for them.

As far as jobs go, retail ranks only slightly higher than janitorial work. Employees at big-box stores like Target, Walmart and The Gap, in addition to their cashiering or shelf-stocking duties, must also empty the trash, sweep and mop the floors, clean the associate breakroom and even the bathrooms. They are also responsible for disposing of any trash customers indifferently leave behind in the shopping carts. Such items can include everything from empty fast-food containers, unfinished Starbucks lattes, discarded tissues and even soiled diapers.

In fact, it is quite common for customers to pawn their garbage off on cashiers while checking out, commanding--never asking--them to "Throw this out!" Whether they are oblivious to the large trash receptacles that line the entrance of most of these big-box stores, or simply too lazy to make use of them on their way out, has never been clear to me. I once had an old man slowly and deliberately crumple his receipt up in front of me and drop it right on the register in a manner that suggested I was wrong to have handed it to him in the first place.

Additionally, retail workers must endure erratic scheduling, including shifts on weekends and holidays. Increasingly, more and more retail workers are expected to work on Thanksgiving Day. Associates are often forced to work until the store's close, getting home around 10:30 or 11 p.m., only to return to the store at 7 or 8 a.m. the following day. This unrelenting scheduling particularly takes its toll on single mothers, especially if they work an additional job. And you can forget about having any sort of a social life when you work retail. The few days associates do get off are usually in the beginning or middle of the week--when everybody else is working.

All of this demeaning work for jobs that offer meager pay, no health insurance, no overtime pay, no union protection and little opportunity for advancement. Since most retail workers are considered "part-time,"--even if they actually work close to 40 hours a week--employers do not have to offer them any health care. This is unlikely to change with the official start of Obamacare next year.

But increasingly low-wage workers are fighting back.

On Nov. 29, "Black Friday," Walmart workers went on strike in over 1,500 stores nationwide to demand higher wages. Walmart employees, operating under the labor-advocacy group, Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, initiated the strikes on what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. The strikes came on the heels of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawsuit against the retail giant that alleges Walmart illegally fired or disciplined employees who took part in a similar strike earlier this summer.

Walmart is the nation's largest employer and ranks number one on the Fortune 500, with profits of $443.9 billion in 2012.

Doug Born, president of the Southern Maine Labor Council, attended a protest, along with 25 other labor activists and Walmart employees, at the Walmart in Scarborough. The retail giant, according to Born, has a "terrible habit of underpaying" its workers.

So much, it seems, for the idea these corporate big-box stores "create jobs" in their cities and neighborhoods.

"How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach," John Steinbeck asked in The Grapes of Wrath, "but in the wretched bellies of his own children? You can't scare him--he has known a fear beyond every other."

Retail workers of the world, unite!

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Adam, this is a such a great post. I’m wondering if you’d give me permission to repost it on WorkersWrite, a website I edit that showcases the stories workers tell about their working lives. Of course, we would credit you, and link back to your site. Please let me know if that would be okay. Thank you!
    Rose Imperato
    Editor, WorkersWrite