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America’s Massive Retail Workforce Is Tired of Being Ignored

Long absent from discussions about employment, workers from Walmart to Bloomingdale’s are taking matters into their own hands.

An April 2017 rally held by unionized Bloomindale’s workers in New York City in April. Workers hold signs and pump their fists outside the store flagship.
An April 2017 rally held by unionized Bloomingdale’s workers in New York City.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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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.”

A portrait of retail worker Francisco Aguilera
Francisco Aguilera attends college during the day and works retail in the evenings.
Photo: Cayce Clifford for Racked

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.

Emeryville, Saul Sandoval notes, was ripe for such a campaign. Born and raised in Oakland, Sandoval works at the Vans store on Bay Street and has watched Emeryville develop. “You see construction all the time,” he says. Because of the city's reputation as an upscale shopping hot spot, there is extra pressure on workers like him to provide excellent customer service “so they can push a great image for Emeryville.” The money flowing into the Bay Area in general and Emeryville in particular made it easier to argue that retail workers deserved a share of the spoils.

Yet in Emeryville, notes Kelby Peeler, for five years an employee of Barnes & Noble on Bay Street and now an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE, the inequality is also on full display. “Everybody that lives above us, none of those people work here,” he says, gesturing to the pricey apartments atop the Bay Street stores where we stand. “Built into the very fabric of structures here, there is an inherent hierarchy.”

The story being told of retail today is that of the “retail apocalypse.” Stores are closing; attention is being turned to the internet. This is especially true of the fashion retail world, where companies like the Limited (onetime sister brand to Express, where Francisco Aguilera works, and formerly to mall staples Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works before parent company L Brands shed them) have been shuttering hundreds of stores around the country. The number repeated like a mantra in article after article has been 89,000: 89,000 jobs lost in “general merchandise” retail since October, from a Times article by Michael Corkery.

Even when the stores aren't closing, says Richard Granger, organizing director at the United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW, union Local 23 in western Pennsylvania, they are often laying off workers or cutting hours. “That has customer service consequences. Our fear is that if people are spending less time and money in a brick-and-mortar location, that if they then also start to experience less customer service, less attention because a corporation makes a staffing decision, that creates a vicious cycle that drives consumers to look for other options.” In other words, slashing staff in order to maintain profits may in fact be hastening the decline of retail stores.

Mannequins and store fixtures for sale after a store has closed at the South Coast Plaza mall
The remnants of a shuttered store at South Coast Plaza in Orange County, California.
Photo: Brian Guido for Racked

Yet, says Carrie Gleason, co-founder of the Retail Action Project and director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, or CPD, the retail sector as a whole is still projected to grow in the coming years. “What is happening in retail right now is a result of an oversaturation of the market, increasing pressure and competition from online retailing, and also companies that just haven’t adapted to the way that people shop today. J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Payless, Radio Shack, Sears, Wet Seal — all of those companies have not been doing well for a very long time, even before the explosion of Amazon Prime.”

More importantly, she notes, cities that have passed higher minimum wages and paid sick day requirements have not struggled economically, despite the dire predictions from business interest groups. Emeryville, Peeler and others say, has not seen the kind of store closures that are rippling across the country. “This moment where we are seeing some contraction in the retail market shouldn’t be this moment where we justify not caring about the quality of these jobs or that we shy away from making them family-sustaining jobs,” Gleason argues. “We can’t let this moment allow us to lose perspective on how important retail is to our economy and can’t allow it to be another justification for why we shouldn’t care about this workforce and its jobs.”

The roughly 16 million workers in the retail industry mostly make less than $15 an hour, and many get fewer hours than they’d like; in a recent report, CPD found that 49 percent of part-timers in general merchandise retail (big-box, department, and discount stores) would prefer to be full-time. Working one's way up the job ladder is harder for women and people of color — women make up 60 percent of first-line supervisors, but only 18 percent of upper management.

The subsectors that disproportionately employ women are also the ones with “a higher concentration of low-quality jobs.” More than twice as many women as men work in clothing and accessories retail, for example, with a median wage of $9.39 for salespeople. General merchandise stores also have a 60 percent female workforce and disproportionately high numbers of black and Latino workers, who are concentrated in positions like cashier, where 90 percent of them make below $13.30 an hour. Wage theft — the failure to pay wages owed — is pervasive in the industry, as a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows.

In order to help track and save every penny, Gleason says, retail employers rely on heavy surveillance. Video cameras are common in stores, and while there has been some coverage of the use of facial recognition to, for example, recognize known shoplifters, Gleason notes that cameras also track whether employees are smiling, adding another dimension to the policing of employees' emotional labor.

Emotional labor is a concept developed by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her landmark study of service workers, describing the need to control one's own emotions in order to produce a desired emotional state in a customer or client. Rachel Laforest, director of the Retail Action Project, or RAP, points out that the ability to perform emotional labor well is often discounted as a valuable skill even though it is a key part of the front-line service worker's job.

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.”

A woman behind the counter of a store selling handbags at South Coast Plaza
More than twice as many women as men work in clothing and accessories retail.
Photo: Brian Guido for Racked

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.

In retail, employers began shifting to a part-time workforce — more employees, fewer hours per employee. “I saw the instability permeate the workforce,” Gleason says. “Working moms at Ann Taylor quit their jobs at Ann Taylor because there was no way they could arrange stable child care with a workweek that changed every week. At the same time, my working single mom shopped for her clothes at Ann Taylor. There was this ironic tension, especially in women’s clothing. There is this real class divide between who is working and who is shopping in these clothing stores.”

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania used to be the home of the American steel industry; the United Steelworkers union still bases its headquarters there. The flagship facility of the entire industry was the Homestead steel plant, home to one of the largest labor conflicts in US history. In 1892, management’s demands for massive wage cuts led to first a lockout and then a strike of nearly 4,000 workers. When company chairman Henry Clay Frick brought in Pinkerton detectives, the resulting battle left seven workers dead and the National Guard was called in to put down the rebellion.

The Homestead steel plant is now the Waterfront shopping center, which boasts the tagline “Where tradition meets trend.” The smokestacks and some other pieces of the plant were preserved and overlook a Macy's, Victoria's Secret, Dick's Sporting Goods, Target, and Costco, among others. “We saw what used to be the bedrock union industrial jobs as personified by US Steel literally turned into a big strip of low-wage, high-turnover retail jobs,” says Richard Granger of UFCW.

UFCW Local 23 represents 12,000 retail and logistics workers in western Pennsylvania. Since the closure of the downtown Macy's in Pittsburgh in 2015, Granger says, its members mostly work in grocery stores. The flagship store had been operating for more than a century when it shuttered, leaving downtown Pittsburgh without a department store and 120 workers without their union jobs.

The factors keeping retail wages low have been many, from changes in the city that meant less shopping downtown, to the growth of big-box stores like Walmart, which are resolutely anti-union and low-wage, to the spike of online shopping and the recent development of fast-delivery options from Amazon and others. That means that even when retail workers do have a union, Granger says, it has been a struggle to get their wages up to what factory workers can still make.

There is truth to the idea that retail workers lag behind in wages and union protections — at their peak, retail stores still had only about 15 percent union density (the number of workers represented by a union) — because of the perception of who those workers were. In particular, the persistence of part-time jobs in retail, even when workers would prefer 40 hours, has its base in decades-old assumptions that women only needed part-time jobs. Employers assumed female employees were married, working for a little extra cash, while their husbands brought home the so-called “family wage” from their factory or professional jobs. The part-time job, designed to give women workers time to do their (unpaid) housework, has now become a way for employers to have large numbers of workers on the payroll, easily disciplined through cuts and changes to their schedules, all competing with one another for scarce hours.

Despite being a consumer society, the US does not assume that retail workers are valuable and deserving of high wages, Rachel Laforest notes. Yet at the dawn of the industrial revolution and for decades afterward, factory workers were also presumed to be unskilled and undeserving, easily replaced. “There's this narrative of bringing manufacturing jobs back — in Pittsburgh the great hollowing-out happened in the ’80s,” Granger says. “There's this sense that a factory job is a good job and retail jobs are not. An industrial factory job used to be literally the worst, most dangerous job you could have. Organizing and unionizing those places is what turned them into family-wage jobs.”

Female Woolworth's employees striking for a 40-hour work week in 1937.
Female Woolworth's employees went on strike to win a 40-hour work week in 1937.
Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The pressures facing factory workers today have echoes in the retail world as well. Though outsourcing is not a problem, the specter of automation hovers over retail as it does manufacturing. A recent report from investment advisory firm Cornerstone Capital Group found that 6 to 7.5 million retail jobs could be automated away in coming years, with the biggest job losses concentrated among retail cashiers.

But those numbers are contested, notes sociologist Stephanie Luce, professor of labor studies at the City University of New York’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute. While low-paying cashier jobs could suffer thanks to automation, there might be opportunities for different in-store positions in the new retail environment. “Most analysts think consumers still want some actual ‘mortar and brick’ shopping experience,” says Luce. “Shopping isn’t just buying; it is also an activity. Tourism, for example, involves lots of looking in stores.” There might be new opportunities in e-commerce, too.

And the number of “jobs lost” in an industry that prefers, currently, to hire many part-time high-turnover workers, she says, is misleading. “Cutting jobs could possibly result in fewer people being employed part-time, but more full-time workers. They may choose to have a different service model: fewer employees, but invest in them, train them, have them know the products and understand the technology.” Carrie Gleason adds, “As we face automation and mall closings, other retailers are expanding, including the opening of Amazon stores.”

The labor movement paid more attention to factory workers than to retail workers in its heyday, with the result that retail jobs are becoming scarcer without having ever achieved the standards that unions won for manufacturing workers. Carrie Gleason notes that even during moments like the famous Woolworth's strike, where women retail workers emulated the Flint autoworkers and held a sit-down strike for raises, union recognition, and the eight-hour day, “they had to prove that women could organize. That was the debate that was happening then. I think it still resonates today.”

And the continued perception of retail jobs as “bad” or “temporary” jobs makes them harder to organize. “The average worker sees a quicker path to a better job by quitting [retail] and finding a job in an industry that they perceive as having more of a future rather than fighting against downward pressure from the very company that they work for,” Granger says. “We have lots of members and workers in nonunion stores who might have worked at the manufacturing facility, and now they're trying to wait until they qualify for Social Security. The idea that they might be able to turn their big-box employer into the kind of job they might have had 15 years ago, they have a hard time believing that.”

Betty Lloyd has worked in the Bloomingdale's New York City flagship store for 37 years. A member of RWDSU Local 3 and its contract negotiations team, she spent hours at the end of April bargaining with her bosses’ representatives for a new union contract that would make up the losses workers have experienced due to online sales. Her short black curls, purple eyeshadow, and pearl necklace are impeccable; there is steel in her voice when she talks about the 20 percent decline in her commissions over the past five years and the impending strike vote.

“When a customer comes into the store, you are very happy to see them,” she says. “You give them your product knowledge. You show them what you have that is in their needs. You fit them, size them, give them the color. You tell them how great they look. Now, the sale close. You hear the customer say, 'Thank you very much, Betty, for your service, but I am going to go home and order this online.'” In addition to helping customers who don't buy, she says, she has lost valuable commission-making time having to pack online orders, process online returns, and open up store credit cards. For workers like her, who survive entirely on their commission, the little tasks that don’t make her money add up.

Portrait of Betty Lloyd on the street in New York City
Betty Lloyd has worked at Bloomingdale’s for 37 years.
Photo: Daniel Dorsa for Racked
Kathy Houser outside the Bloomingdale’s flagship in New York City.
Kathy Houser outside the Bloomingdale’s flagship in New York City.
Photo: Daniel Dorsa for Racked

Kathy Houser, who has worked in fine jewelry at Bloomingdale's for 15 years, has had similar experiences. “When I started there, we had a lot of floor traffic. Events were very successful with in-store sales. It was a whole different ballgame then.” She could see the online shift coming, she says, her sleek bob swinging as she speaks.

“A lot of times the sales are posted online before the event drops in the store. We miss the early traffic,” she says. “They will be offering something a little bit more enticing for them to shop online — how do you get your own client in when they are seeing something online? We try to tell them we will honor it, but it really does diminish the incentive to come into the store and shop with us.” In addition, in recent years, she notes, people have been savvier about spending — more of them will wait for big sales in order to make the expensive purchases that drive her commissions. Or they will wear jewelry once and return it. “Not only do we miss commissions on a return, but we are held accountable for productivity.”

Lloyd and Houser are at the high end of retail employment. Though expensive products do not necessarily mean high wages, Bloomingdale's is one of the few places where retail workers have been able to have long-term careers. “There is money to be made in certain positions,” Houser says. But most importantly, Bloomingdale's has been unionized for 80 years.

New York City has the highest percentage of unionized workers in the country, notes Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, and many of them are in fact retail workers. In addition to Bloomingdale's, the union represents workers at Macy's, Zara, H&M, sporting goods store Modell's, and even sex-toy shop Babeland. “Babeland is important, too, because people may not take seriously workers in some industries,” Appelbaum says. “Babeland workers are basically saying that every worker deserves the opportunity to join together collectively.”

New York's status as a destination for immigrants, Appelbaum notes, helped it become a union town, as immigrants from around the world brought traditions of collective action with them. And New York was, and is, one of the retail capitals of the world. In New York, as perhaps nowhere else, there has been a recognition that retail can be a career. The Bloomingdale's workforce includes a mother-daughter team and one worker who is actually third-generation at Bloomingdale's. “At one time, retail in particular was seen as a very good job. You were able to lead a middle-class life,” Appelbaum says. “But a lot of retailers now are replacing full-time work with precarious employment, part-time jobs at best.”

The Bloomingdale's workers negotiated with their employer right up to their strike vote deadline of May 1 — the day celebrated around the world as International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, a holiday rooted in worker organizing and repression in Chicago and recently reclaimed in the US by immigrant workers demonstrating their power by striking. The barricades, Appelbaum told me, went up in front of the store days ahead of the deadline in anticipation of a possible strike — the first at Bloomingdale's since 1965.

A Bloomingdale’s worker at a union rally in April.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Betty Lloyd and Kathy Houser won their demands without having to go on strike, though, as the company agreed not only to improved sick pay and seniority rights, to immigrant worker protections and protections against harassment, but also to changes in the commission system that would wipe out some of the workers' commissions debt and shift others’ to hourly wages. “This contract will finally recognize the 20 percent in wages we have lost over the past five years due to online sales,” Lloyd says.

The contract, too, would recognize the fact that, as Appelbaum says, “the in-store experience is important. It establishes the brand that transcends in-store shopping and also relates to the online platform.”

“Bloomingdale’s,” adds Lloyd, “is like no other store in the world.”

It is certainly true that Bloomingdale's is less representative of retail working conditions than is another iconic American retail company: Walmart.

Regina Mays has worked at Walmart for six years, first in Virginia and now in High Point, North Carolina. “High Point is in transition. We had a mall, but the college actually bought our mall out, so right now our biggest retailer is Walmart,” she says. That mall, the Oak Hollow Mall, was shuttered in March, closing down 11 remaining tenants in the struggling retail facility. The former J.C. Penney space in the mall was turned into a community center by High Point University.

After several years at Walmart, Mays filled out an online petition calling for a $15 minimum hourly wage and was contacted by an organizer from Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, an independent worker organization that began as a project of UFCW to organize Walmart workers. She first joined a Facebook page for the organization, and then became an active member about a year ago. In that time, she has traveled to Washington, DC to speak about Walmart’s working conditions, joined a working group around the company's pregnancy policy, and helped work on an app to connect Walmart workers to one another and to talk about company policies and problems.

Cynthia Murray was one of the founding members of OUR Walmart. A 16-year Walmart employee based in Laurel, Maryland, she has seen many changes in the company. I have interviewed Murray several times over the past three years, and when we spoke for this story, the latest changes were a shift from separately accrued sick, personal, and vacation time into lumped-together paid time off, or PTO. Each week, Murray explains, she now accrues four hours of PTO, from which time off for sickness as well as vacation is deducted. “We no longer get holiday pay unless we want to take it out of PTO time,” she says. Sick time also has to be approved by a third-party company, Sedgwick, she says, and workers accumulate “points” for taking time off. “We can only have eight points in a six-month rolling period,” she says. “Before I could take three [sick] days off and it would be one point; now it is three.” If you get more than eight points, you're fired.

“When you're a parent, it feels kinda like you have to choose between your job and your kids,” Regina Mays observes. “The sick policy is what really led me to want to get involved [with OUR Walmart] because it's ridiculous. Sick happens, we get sick.”

Their raises, too, have changed. “We used to get 40 cents a year for a raise. They took that away. It is now 2 percent of whatever you make an hour,” Murray says. “I didn’t even get 40 cents. I am a 16-year Walmart worker, and I am not making $15 an hour still.”

Recent cutbacks at Walmart have also resulted in layoffs. They've laid off the floor associates, Murray says, though the deepest cuts have been to the “shift managers” or “co-managers,” the second-tier managers, as well as to management in regional offices and its home office in Bentonville, Arkansas.

“I don’t want to put anybody out of a job. No one. Not now, not in this economy, no way. But you have got to rethink the structure of our whole company and everyone,” Murray says. “I am talking about the CEO all the way down. I don’t believe in my heart that a CEO should be making almost $10,000 an hour. That is what Doug McMillon is making an hour, $9,000 and some change an hour. That is ridiculous. He is making $20 million a year. Take some of that money and put it back into your workers because they are the ones that matter.”

Monica Mor and Blanca Odino restock a display at a Walmart in Miami.
Monica Mor (left) and Blanca Odino restock a display at a Walmart in Miami.
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Murray has noticed, too, a shift in the attitudes of both the workers and the customers since November's election. Everyone seems more tense. “Workers are more afraid now than ever,” she says. “The whole world has taken a different turn. At first, I just held it in. I was like, 'Am I crazy?' We were talking, and a lot of people were like, 'I am so glad you said it because I thought it was just me!' I am talking about [how] racism is so high. Hatred for one another.” Indeed, shortly after we spoke, video of a racist rant inside a Walmart store not far from the company’s home office in Arkansas went viral.

The political activities of the Walton family, which still controls the board and the majority of Walmart stock, and Walmart executives have been well-documented, particularly by historian Bethany Moreton in her award-winning To Serve God and Wal-Mart. In that book, she details a company that refuses to invest in its mostly female workforce, paying them instead in lip service to “family values.” That lip service is no longer enough for workers like Regina Mays. At the same time, the company funds programs to promote “Christian free enterprise,” creating a ready-made pool of workers for Walmart management jobs at a string of Christian colleges across the US, and donates to programs promoting the capitalist model in Latin America. The Walton Family Foundation similarly spends money on charter schools, which direct public money into private hands and are largely, unlike public schools, nonunion.

“Walmart gives the illusion that they're family-oriented but they're not,” she says. “I was told by a manager — this stuck with me — it was the manager when I was working at the store in Virginia. I was trying to get my availability changed. I was like, 'You have me working on weekends and holidays and I have children.' He said, 'This is retail, when you work retail you should be expecting to work nights, holidays, and weekends.'”

The OUR Walmart members help one another navigate the changing system using a series of Facebook groups and now the WorkIt app, developed by the workers to answer questions that their fellow associates have. The company rules and regulations are accessible only by company computers in Walmart stores, computers that workers are not often allowed to use. “They won’t let you get back there to find the rules and regulations,” Murray explains. “So the WorkIt app, no matter where you are, in your car, in the bathroom, in McDonald’s, if you feel as though there is a question that you really need to know, you can download it.” IBM's Watson artificial intelligence helps power the app, but it also connects the workers to one another. Questions about the raise policy change, Mays says, have been some of the most popular.

Walmart's outsize influence on the rest of the workforce has been repeatedly noted and is a motivating force for workers like Murray, who are becoming less of a rarity within the retail workforce — longtime employees dedicated to improving their working conditions. Murray was part of some of the first strikes at Walmart, as well as the more recent International Women's Day strike on March 8, but she also appreciates that OUR Walmart is not a traditional labor union. “I hate to say this because I was brought up Teamster. My father was a Teamster and he worked for unions all his life, but I don’t think they are changing fast enough for the 21st century.”

But organizing is the only way forward that she sees. “The structural changes that have been made have hurt workers,” she says. “People put down Walmart workers, people who work retail. Well, if these people didn’t work retail, who would you have to put out the goods you buy? That is one thing that makes me angry, that you have some people that say, 'They don’t deserve $15 an hour.' Why not?”

Even as Walmart has been making cuts to its in-store and home office workforce, it has been investing in new ventures. The company purchased several online retailers recently, including the trendy women's clothing company ModCloth.

The rise of online retail has created the rise of the fulfillment center job, the horrors of which have been well-documented — the speed, the heat, the dust, the towering stacks of merchandise, the screaming bosses, the grinding pain. Those jobs too, despite being quite far from the white-glove pin-money women's work that retail work is purported to be, are largely part-time. “There's this commitment to low standards, to temporary work, to a transient workforce as part of the business model that makes it hard to organize,” Richard Granger of UFCW says.

Warehouse workers from Amazon and ModCloth reached out to UFCW to express interest in unionizing, he says, but mostly they leave the jobs before anything happens. “We had one ModCloth worker who was like, 'Oh, we're part of Walmart now and Walmart can't be union.' There's this internalized narrative that we hear from temps, and I'm sure it's very intentional at the corporate level, ‘Oh, we can't be union, I don't even work for the company, I'm a temp.’” What might have been an inroad into organizing instead becomes “more of a cautionary tale about how fast online retail can change and move.”

The behind-the-scenes workforce, though, is an integral part of brick-and-mortar retail as well, and some of them have managed to improve their conditions despite challenges. In Minneapolis, retail janitors have won unlikely victories at Target and other companies.

Like the workers in the warehouses and distribution centers, the janitors are employed indirectly, through subcontractors. This model means that big-name brands have plausible deniability when it comes to the subcontracted workers' often-deplorable working conditions, but when workers have managed to take their demands to the big brands, they've been able to win changes in their conditions.

Maricela Flores has been a retail janitor with Carlson Building Maintenance, cleaning a Target store, for four years in Minneapolis, and a member of Centro de Trabajadores Unido en Lucha, or CTUL, for almost that whole time. CTUL is a workers' center that organizes Spanish-speaking immigrant workers like Flores (our interview was conducted through a translator), and the idea of organizing appealed to Flores because she was constantly missing cleaning materials she needed for her job, yet pressed to complete her job in the time she was given. Flores and her colleagues come into the store when it is closed, arriving around 3:00 in the morning and working until 9:00 or so, and when other workers didn’t show up, she would be told to clean the entire store alone.

When she began her job, she made $8 an hour, and got a raise to $9.50 when the state minimum wage rose. Some workers she knew faced theft of their already-low wages; they would get paid in cash, rather than a paycheck, which made it hard for them to track their pay. So Maricela began to talk with the other workers about organizing, and collecting petition signatures to demand a meeting with Target executives. Since the subcontractor would shuffle workers from store to store, she also spoke with workers who cleaned Cub Foods grocery stores and other places. When the petitions were not enough to garner them a meeting with executives, the workers went on strike for the first time in February 2013. It took three strikes, but Target agreed to a responsible contractor policy that ensured that Flores and her colleagues would not have to work seven days a week, would have the right to collective bargaining, and could form safety committees in the workplace.

Maricela Flores, a retail janitor at a Minneapolis-area Target, helped organize her colleagues.
Photo: Ackerman + Gruber for Racked

Even with that policy, though, Flores says, it was still a struggle to maintain her one day off. And so the campaign continued, with more strikes and more organizing leading to the eventual winning of union recognition for 600 Minneapolis-area retail janitors. For the immigrant workers, it was a tremendous victory; for the labor movement, an example of what could be done through partnerships between worker centers and traditional unions (Flores and the others are now members of Service Employees International Union Local 26) and through workers willing to take the risk.

Now, Flores says, the subcontractor provides the materials that she needs, and all workers are paid through a formal paycheck. They won some benefits, and rules on what is to be done when an employee doesn't show up. Most importantly, she says, she is making $11 an hour now. “I feel more calm that I'm making a higher wage. It's not very high, but it's at least a little bit better than the miserable poverty wage that they were paying us before.”

The City Hall in Emeryville looks like something out of a Disney movie, a pastel, domed building surrounded by palm trees. On April 18, Kelby Peeler stood in front of the five-member city council, which had voted in a fair workweek ordinance in October 2016. The policy requires large retailers to give their employees their schedules two weeks in advance, and requires extra “predictability pay” for employer-initiated schedule changes, as well as orders employers to offer any open hours to existing employees before hiring new workers.

Peeler and several other current and former retail workers spoke that night to the council meeting to thank them for passing the policy, but also to ensure that it would be enforced properly. “I am on the ground every day talking with workers around Emeryville and I know how difficult it is to properly inform workers of their rights,” Peeler said. “I know how difficult it is to reach out to workers in a way that makes them feel safe to talk about any issues they might be having.”

“Thank you guys so much for making this fair workweek pass,” echoed Kwame Grant, an employee at Fossil on Bay Street. “It is really going to be really good for us. I currently take on a lot of extra shifts and I am usually called in for them. I am not usually scheduled. This will actually benefit me. Also, I want to make sure that it will get to the workers, someone will actually be able to talk to them, because I never even heard about this until literally a week ago and now it is going to be in place.”

Grant, a musician by trade and also an Oakland native, tells me afterward that his schedule is “semi-set,” meaning that he doesn’t work on Fridays so that he has an evening to schedule music gigs. But because he has a car and lives nearby, he is often the one called in when his manager needs a shift covered. “I am the closest person and usually they call the person who is the most reliable. Half of the time I am the closest and the most reliable,” he says. “I never really get a day off, because on my day off, I am kind of on edge like, 'Who is going to call out? Am I going to actually have a day off? Am I going to relax?'”

With the fair workweek policy, Grant will receive an extra hour's pay for each shift that he picks up last-minute. It also might end one of the stranger things about his schedule. “It is based on sales per hour,” he explains. “If a hundred people come into my store and I don't sell anything, I am not going to get any hours.” But if the law says workers get their schedules two weeks ahead of time, it will be harder to instantly punish them for low sales.

The hour of predictability pay almost sounds too small for the constant disruption of ever-changing schedules, but the workers think it will help as a deterrent. The inconstant scheduling, after all, is justified as a money-saving measure by employers, who now tend to rely on complicated scheduling software that slices and dices hours based on sales from the year before, the day and week before, the weather, or any number of other variables. Managers, pressed to save every dollar in “labor costs” that they can, will send employees home if sales are slow or leave them dangling on call in case sales pick up, but the temptation may lessen if that hour costs them money. The question of scheduling, Carrie Gleason of the Center for Popular Democracy notes, “is also this way in which employers exercise power over workers every day.”

In Emeryville, says Anya Svanoe of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the minimum wage increase “was really powerful,” but the paid sick-leave policy was harder to implement. They also found that employers would make up for the wage increase by cutting hours back. “We realized that it wasn’t enough to lift retail workers out of poverty, to just raise the wage. You needed to also tackle the means by which they get those hours so that workers have more of a say and more of a voice and more control over the schedules and hours that they get.”

Inside a Forever 21 on Bay Street.
Photo: Cayce Clifford for Racked

Retailers, Stuart Appelbaum of RWDSU notes, “have decided they wanted a very precarious workforce. They want lots of workers out there and all of them desperate for more hours.” Such a workforce ensures that people like Grant will always be willing to come in when called, because they always need the extra money. The idea for the fair workweek policy came out of meetings between retail workers and organizers hosted by the Retail Action Project in New York in 2012. The Just Hours code of conduct developed then, Gleason says, became the fair workweek agenda. “It was retail workers defining these standards for themselves. It is an important part of the history, because this movement is rooted in the leadership of New York City clothing store workers that have defined what they need to get by.” The campaign also led to RAP reaching out to the New York attorney general and prompting an investigation into whether on-call shifts were a violation of state reporting pay law.

A survey done by ACCE and CPD found that 68 percent of front-line retail workers in Emeryville were part-time, and 8 of 10 had hours that fluctuated. Sixty-five percent got their schedules a week or less in advance, and more than two-thirds wanted more hours than they got. When Peeler worked at Barnes & Noble, his biggest scheduling problem was “clopenings,” or back-to-back closing and opening shifts. Because Barnes & Noble opened at 7 a.m. and closed at midnight, that left workers with only a few hours between shifts. In the study, ACCE and CPD found that over half of surveyed workers had experienced “clopenings” with fewer than 11 hours for commuting and sleep.

All this underscores that in addition to the pay and the respect, the schedule is one of the biggest differences between retail work and the traditional factory job. Retail stores are open long hours (sometimes overnight, in the case of big-box stores) and workers are shifted around like puzzle pieces to cover the necessary time. The aim of the fair workweek policy is to prevent their managers from treating them like inanimate objects, to respect the fact that they have families, school, and other jobs outside of their retail positions.

The attempts to change the policy show that, Gleason says, “Working people today have far more political power than they do industry power.” The Fight for $15 began as a demand for raises and a union from big fast-food employers, not as a minimum wage campaign, but it has largely calculated its victories in ordinances, not union contracts.

Paid sick days and fair workweek campaigns have likewise spread from city legislature to city legislature. After San Francisco passed the nation's first Retail Workers Bill of Rights, which is similar to the fair workweek initiative, in 2015, Seattle and Emeryville followed in 2016, and San Jose passed an “opportunity to work” ballot measure, which requires employers to offer hours to existing part-timers before hiring new workers. Just recently, on May 24, New York City passed a fair workweek bill that requires retail stores to give workers 72 hours notice on their schedules — meaning no last-minute changes — and bans on-call shifts, as part of a package that imposes even stricter rules on fast-food establishments. Those stricter rules, noted City Councilmember Brad Lander, could later also be imposed on retail.

Campaigns continue around the fair workweek agenda in Ohio, North Carolina, and Oregon, the last of which looks on track to pass the first statewide bill.

“When you think about how long it took to get to $15 on the minimum wage or how long it took to get traction on the paid sick days, the rapid progression of fair workweek policies has been pretty unprecedented,” Gleason says.

Like the development of the policy, the passage of the ordinance in Emeryville came through the efforts of the retail workers themselves. Nic Gallant, who also spoke at the meeting, long dyed-pink hair hanging down his back, works at H&M in Emeryville and saw his hours cut back when the company hired new workers to staff its soon-to-open men's store. “My 40 hours are going down to 32, and my part-timers' 30 hours are going down to 18,” he explains. Giving other workers more hours, he says, might actually lead to him being docked pay for working fewer than 32. Organizers came into his store and explained the fair workweek policy, and he joined ACCE and became a part of the campaign to make it a reality.

Kelby Peeler is an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
Photo: Cayce Clifford for Racked
Kwame Grant works at the Fossil store on Bay Street in Emeryville.
Photo: Cayce Clifford for Racked

For Francisco Aguilera, being part of the campaign was his first experience being involved with the political process, and he got to be part of meetings with the mayor and council members. “It was really kind of cool being at the table with them and seeing the tactics to persuade them towards seeing through our eyes.”

Though the ordinance is now law, Svanoe notes, workers like Aguilera and Gallant are a critical part of its enforcement. “What they can do is create an empowered culture where they are informing their co-workers of their rights and having each other’s backs when they see management not complying with certain aspects. Even if it is the law, people will feel uncomfortable complaining about something unless they know that they are in it together.”

To that end, ACCE aims to train workers as “Know Your Rights” captains in each store, so that there is someone who is informed about various scenarios that could occur under the new law. Despite the workers not having a union, their ability to stand up in solidarity with one another in the workplace is a step toward improving that workplace, toward setting new norms for an industry that has gotten used to precarious conditions and little power for employees.

“Especially given that we are living under the Trump administration, as much as we can do to protect the most vulnerable people,” Svanoe says, “especially minimum wage workers, we should get involved in our local cities and local governments to make that happen.”

After the Emeryville City Council meeting, I joined workers who had supported the policy at a diner across the street. Prince Saruhan, who lives in Oakland and works at a brewery there, told me about why he had chosen to come to the Emeryville meeting and speak in favor of the bill and strong enforcement. It was meaningful to him, he said, because he hoped that the policy would spread and that if it was successful in little Emeryville, it might work in bigger and more diverse Oakland and elsewhere.

“This is the way of the future — increasingly we are going to have more jobs that are in the service sector because we are not manufacturing as much anymore. When people try to put forth the idea that retail workers are throwaway workers, people that can’t be organized, I understand where they are coming from because I was that kid who worked at Burger King and I didn’t care about that job. But there are people I knew who I worked with at that time who were parents, who were working there forever. Why is that not a worthy job to fight for?”

Correction: July 3rd, 2017
Due to a translation error, a previous version of this story misstated an aspect of Maricela Flores's employment history. Flores did not face wage theft as a result of being paid in cash; this was the experience of some of the workers she helped organize.

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Nation Institute. She is the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Heather Schwedel


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