Because what’s happening at my job is also happening in America, this matters.
I work in a retail store, part of the service industry, that disregarded and maligned sector of the work force in which most of the new jobs in this so-called economic recover are being created. So, for example, when my coworker develops a case of carpal tunnel after two years of repetitive labor in a dusty warehouse, and the boss tells her (and I quote!), that, “Everybody has it, You just need to deal with it,” that’s a direct assault on every worker in this country. That’s an employer refusing to improve their labor standards because they know, in this job market, they don’t have to. That’s the new economy. That’s the country we live in. We should all pay attention.
Here at the store, we make $8.15 an hour, fifteen cents above New York’s minimum wage. Most of us work full time, during daylight hours. Exactly none of us are high school kids working after school so we can afford a used Dodge Neon. Many of us have kids to take care of, and since we’re living in the real world and not in some well-heeled ideologue’s fantasy of what the nuclear family should be, we’re also supporting ourselves on a wage that leaves us several thousand dollars shy of the federal poverty line for families. And with all of that, we’re lucky. We’re lucky we have full time jobs, lucky we make more than the national minimum wage of $7.25. It’s a frightening reality of the broke and work-weary world that three decades of neoliberalism has left us that- viewed through the eyes of the multitudes of unemployed and many more working multiple part time jobs- we’re the fortunate ones.
As the bosses are fond of reminding us whenever we complain about our low pay or the pace of work, the constant, arbitrary push to make quota, to keep our numbers up, we could do worse. In fact, there’s an army of out of work folks out there who know how to fill out an online application and who can start tomorrow, if we decide that we want something better than this. We’ve all been part of that army before, and we’re not eager to reenlist.
Still, quitting this hellhole and looking for work elsewhere is an option that more people take, week after week. Employers like ours count on high turnover, comfortable in the knowledge that finding another crappy job somewhere else is always easier than coming together at the job we already have to fight for higher wages.
So what other choices do we have? Besides putting ourselves back on the job market, what can we look to as a source of positive change?
Should we “lean in,” knuckle down, cowboy up, put on a big, fake smile and work twice as hard as we already do in anticipation of a raise or a promotion that may await us like the Emerald City on the horizon, assuming we don’t get sick or injured or fired somewhere along the yellow brick road first? Maybe, if we all kick in hard enough and put the company’s profits ahead of our personal needs for long enough, at some point the corporation that employs us will become so fantastically profitable that they will pay us more and offer us a better health plan out of sheer abundance. Not really.
In the first place, there is overwhelming statistical evidence to show that this sort of trickle-down prosperity is an idealistic fantasy that never comes to pass. When corporations make more money, they invest that profit in other money making schemes; they don’t use it to make their workers’ lives better. And besides, the company we work for is already enormously profitable. They bring in over a billion dollars in annual revenue and their EBITDA profit margins are higher than those of major corporations like Wal-Mart and Macy’s. How they maintain such stratospheric rates of return is no mystery; they do it by writing off most of their expenses as charitable donations and, more importantly, by paying their 19,000 worldwide employees next to nothing.
Perhaps we should rock the vote, hope for the Democratic Party to deliver us change through the electoral process. After all, election day is upon us yet again. But once more, prospects for the kinds of changes that will improve our lives are bleak. Research shows that the power of corporate lobbying in American politics, even on the local level, is all encompassing and that the power of ordinary citizens and community activist groups to affect changes in government policy is near zero. Six years ago, Obama swept into the White House amid a carnival-like atmosphere of civic involvement, promising, with his trademark vagaries, to deliver a change that millions of Americans seemed desperate for. But instead his administration has delivered us six years of corporate backed double talk and lock-step conformity with the same rank economic policies that wrecked the working class in the first place. Looking at the hyperbolic, schizophrenic stalemate that is our national political discourse, can any of us honestly believe that some politician more liberal than Obama will ride in and snatch our democracy from the jowls of the corporate leviathan?
No, the change we need will never come from our bosses, or from the politicians who our bosses pay to keep wages low and make sure the bulk of the tax burden falls on the middle class. We have very little power to change anything from the ballot box. we have power in our communities and in our jobs. In our communities we have the power to support one another, to lift each other up and provide the kind of social safety net the government gave up on back in the Reagan years. In our jobs, we have the power to unite together and withhold our labor. Our labor is the only source of the bosses’ wealth, and that’s the one thing they hope we never figure out. It’s our hand on the spigot. Every penny the bosses make comes through us first.
There is a union organizing drive going on at my job, and it has brought some changes. They put a TV in the breakroom, and they let us watch dvd’s at lunch time. Over all, the management style has gotten less Stalin-esque and more friendly, more approachable. If you take a sick day or come in late because your babysitter flaked and you need to make sure your kids get on the bus, you’re less likely to get fired for it than you were a year ago. But as measly and inconsequential as these changes are, they didn’t come from the bosses suddenly having a change of heart. It has happened because the bosses are afraid of what will happen when we are actually organized. If we ever made it past the level of idle chatter and joined together in a union, they would have to meet us at the negotiating table and offer us a contract with the kind of wages we would vote on and agree to. That terrifies them.
We’ve just come through the Halloween season, which, for the for profit thrift store industry, is the busy season. For the last two months, we’ve been asked to work extra hard. There has been a chart on the wall in the shape of a skeleton, where the manager charts our daily sales to show how close or how far away we are from making our quarterly and holiday bonuses. Those bonuses have been the carrot dangling i our eye-line for months. Last week, during the morning meeting, our store manager let us know, with a magnanimous grin spread across her cheeks, that we were on course to make at least the quarter bonus, if not the extra payday for Halloween sales. Those bonuses would be $150 each, for a total of three hundred. But, she told us, that money would be taxed at 55%, meaning that if we get them both, the reward for our having brought who knows how many thousands of dollars in sales into our store will be less than a hundred and fifty bucks each. That’s not store policy, she said, that’s the federal government. Blame them.
Well, pardon me for being a drag on workplace morale, but balls to that. I say, let’s get on a different program, one where we make a decent wage for our hard work and we have a contract that guarantees our rights in the workplace. I’m working on a little scandal where we, the people, actually get to have a say as to what goes on in the workplaces where we spend most of our waking lives, where we stop working ourselves ragged for pitiful bonuses and start working together to make life better for our families, and to make this country a decent place to work for a living. I got a plan. It’s called democracy, and it starts when we all get together and decide we’re not going to be exploited any more.
Because this is America, home of the brave, and this is the change we really need.