I remember one of my first jobs. I was a senior in high school in Mount Vernon, N,Y., a suburb of New York City, and I got a job at a sporting goods store. The pay seemed decent, at least that is how I remember it. But what was noteworthy was that older adults worked in the store and had worked in the store for some time. No, I don't mean retirees who are forced to work because their Social Security is not enough; I mean non-retirees who had made a life for themselves in the retail industry.
It was not uncommon to go to major stores and find employees who had made a career in the retail industry. But it was not just major stores. There were plenty of smaller stores like the sporting goods store that employed me that held onto employees.
Like many other industries in the USA, retail underwent changes that have produced an entirely different work environment and work force. In efforts to secure greater profits, salaries have been reduced, hours altered (and in many cases sliced), and the target workforce has become either younger adults or senior citizens. In either case, the employers do not have or promote the expectation of employment longevity. The bottom line is that it has become less and less possible for a worker to make a living working retail. This is the portion of the workforce that has been described as being the underemployed, i.e., those who have a job (whether part-time or full-time) that simply cannot sustain their living standard.
We have been hearing more and more about the horrendous working conditions at Wal-Mart. While Wal-Mart is a leader in the new retail industry—with a very vulnerable workforce—it is not standing alone. They have succeeded in promoting a precarious employment environment for their workers and, in doing so, have helped to set a pattern for the rest of the industry. As opposed to unionized retail workers of days gone by who might have had pensions and healthcare, with Wal-Mart you have no unions, few benefits, and an excessive amount of vulnerability.
I wish that Wal-Mart was the only such employer. Retail employers are failing to invest in their workforce. Claiming that they will not be able to compete, they have attempted to keep the salaries/wages of retail workers low. They are even prepared to accept a transitory workforce where it is not expected that a worker will stay for long. The problem, at least from the standpoint of the worker, is that you may sicken of a particular employer but rather than social mobility up, you as a retail worker live the life of the lateral pass, going from employer to employer, but rarely rising to a respectable living standard.
The reality is that this situation will not change until and unless retail workers win unionization. As long as employers can compete against one another on the basis of who offers the lowest wages, retail workers will not only be pitted against one another but will find themselves caught in an employment maelstrom, whirling around and around, eventually sinking.
As consumers we are being taught to close our eyes to the conditions of retail workers, only looking for the best bargains, but here's my question, to paraphrase the words of the late president of the United Auto Worker, Walter Reuther: If we keep letting the condition of retail workers sink so that there are alleged bargains for the consumers, who will be in a position to buy the products?
I don't see this question asked and answered on the business pages of my local newspapers. How about you?
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of "They're Bankrupting Us!" – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.