An April 2017 rally held by unionized Bloomingdale’s workers in New York City. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Francisco Aguilera has worked at the Express on Bay Street in Emeryville, California for the past year and a half. “I do a little bit of everything,” from running the register to folding and arranging clothes to working in the stockroom in the back of the store, he says. Soft-spoken with an open smile, Aguilera is what many people picture to be the typical retail worker: someone putting in a few hours in the evenings at a shopping complex while attending college during the day. He likes his job well enough, though he notes it can be tiring to work until 9:30 or 10:00 at night and then find time to do his schoolwork.
The customers, too, can be exhausting, Aguilera says. Bay Street is one of the shiniest shopping developments in Emeryville, a town of about two square miles on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. If you visit it today, you might think it was carved out of Oakland and Berkeley solely to create a retail destination, packed with multiple outdoor shopping centers, big-box stores like Target and Ikea, and thousands of low-wage retail workers who commute half an hour or more in search of work.
The nature of a retail job is shaped, for many workers, by three things: the customers, the manager, and the likelihood of moving on to something else. Aguilera notes that his job has been relatively pleasant because he likes his manager, who has been willing to work with his schedule. Managers, he says, “have so much control over basically your whole experience.
Marlena Hudson can testify to that. Over the last two years balancing two jobs at two different Bay Street stores, she’s experienced the way managers can be manipulative, making decisions based on favoritism and their own convenience at the expense of their employees. During this time, she has also seen Emeryville vote on the nation’s highest minimum wage, currently $15.20 an hour for businesses with 56 or more employees. That wage is nice, she notes, but it still doesn’t afford her enough money to move out of her grandmother’s house. “You have to be working full-time or 40 hours a week, at least,” she says, to pay Bay Area rents, and despite working two jobs, she has a hard time getting enough hours to make ends meet. Even in Emeryville, one of the best places in the country to be a retail worker, making the work into a career is a struggle.
Hudson and Aguilera are part of America’s massive retail workforce. Nationwide, retail jobs account for 10 percent of all employment. That includes jobs at clothing and accessories retailers like the ones at Bay Street, department stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, grocery stores, electronics stores, home and garden stores, and of course, Walmart and other big-box stores. Despite its major role in the economy, retail — which makes up half of all consumer spending — tends to be a low-wage, high-turnover sector. Its workers are disproportionately women and disproportionately people of color. They face a laundry list of problems, from rampant wage theft to race and gender discrimination.
Retail workers get little attention in major discussions about employment in America. In part, this is because the jobs are widely seen as low-skill, temporary ones done by young people like Aguilera, on their way to something more prestigious. Why make the jobs better if they’re just done by kids, or women who are looking for pocket money, or the unskilled?
Such a tension has only been heightened by the ascension of Donald Trump, who attempted to win over blue-collar manufacturing and mining workers while running on a platform ultimately tailored to the wealthy. It has been correctly noted by the likes of economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman that those industrial jobs are assumed to be done by men, mostly white men, though the reality is more complicated. (The Carrier plant in Indianapolis, where Donald Trump made a show of “saving” a few hundred manufacturing jobs from outsourcing, in fact has a workforce that is nearly half women.) It is also true that those jobs are more likely to have the protections of unions, which help drive up wages and benefits and give workers an institutionalized way to push back against the caprices of management.
Indeed, when retail workers have pushed themselves into public consciousness in recent years it has been because they have been organizing. Retail workers have been at the heart of the Fight for $15, which pushed wages higher in places like Emeryville, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and a host of other cities as low-wage workers struck and rallied for raises. Retail workers too have organized for paid sick time, passed into law in Emeryville in 2015, and now more and more have begun to demand some control over their schedules. Rather than hope for a Make America Great Again–style renaissance of manufacturing, retail workers are demanding that their existing jobs improve.
Retail work can be stressful on the body in similar ways to factory work, but the factory worker is not subject to demands on his or her appearance in the same way. Retail workers, Laforest says, often have to change or invest in their looks in order to get and keep positions. This leads to even more rampant discrimination and segregation within the workforce; a 2015 study by researchers Catherine Ruetschlin and Dedrick Asante-Muhammad found that “retail employers pay 70 percent of Black and Latino full and part-time retail sales workers less than $15 per hour, compared to 58 percent of White retail workers.” Transgender workers also face discrimination: a 2010 report from community group Make the Road New York found a 42 percent rate of discrimination against transgender job seekers in New York’s retail sector.
The fast growth and changes in the retail sector, Laforest says, have meant limited attention to regulation or protections for workers. “The workers are seen very much as disposable because it is still characterized as a low-skill job. It is very easy to take advantage of workers if there are not worker centers and labor unions that are paying attention to retail. It is a very difficult industry to organize because of the turnover and the companies take advantage of that.”
It has been those worker centers and unions that have tracked the changes in the industry. Gleason, in her early days as an organizer with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, remembers J.C. Penney workers with guaranteed schedules, health insurance, commissions, and stability. Then, the demands for givebacks began — a similar story in many ways to the one I heard from unionized factory workers in Indiana, as cuts to their health insurance came alongside threats of closure.
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