Today’s post is the first in what will be an ongoing series on the retail industry, its impact on our economy, and the opportunities and challenges its workers face.

A recent article in Good Magazine focused on telling the stories of workers in the service industry that anyone who works in the sector is all too familiar with. The piece is filled with examples of workers who are overworked, underpaid and do not have any job security or benefits. The fear of not being able to pay the bills, getting sick or getting fired at any moment is plaguing workers in an industry that will become the backbone of the American economy.

Retail jobs are growing, and they’re poised to become as important to the 21st Century American economy as manufacturing jobs once were. Yet, despite the growing demand of the service industry, retail jobs don’t always come with a path to the middle class, and instead leave workers struggling to meet their basic needs. If we want to have a middle class in America, it is crucial that millions of American retail workers have good jobs with solid work schedules, and a paycheck and benefits that pay the bills.

Make no mistake, retailers actively work to make these jobs “bad” jobs. Driven by the bottom line of profit, and emboldened by a struggling economy and a plethora of applicants, they’ve purposely created a broken system and negative working environment for workers. With the exception of a few responsible retailers whose workers have a union voice, most retail employers don’t pay a living wage. They depend on high turnover. They’re stingy with schedules in order to avoid paying overtime and providing benefits.

Retailers trap their workers in a cycle of inconsistent schedules and wages that leave them struggling to make ends meet and support their families. Many workers have to balance two or three different jobs at a time in order to make a 40 hour work week possible. The middle class cannot survive or prosper if its foundation of workers is scrambling between several jobs just to pay the bills or put food on the table.

Retailers and other service industry employers do this to send a clear message to workers: you don’t deserve good jobs. In surprising, stark contrast to the way we felt about manufacturing jobs, Americans are starting to believe retail jobs – the very foundation of our new economy – shouldn’t be decent, dependable, middle class jobs. Many workers are just grateful to have a job at all, and they expect low wages and benefits because it is part of the system that has been ingrained in them.

These workers will play a significant role in the American economy. It’s shocking to think about the consequences of a generation of workers whose primary job opportunities offer them no path to the middle class.

Many people see their retail jobs as temporary or as a stepping stone to other careers, so they don’t want to invest a lot in a position they believe will not serve them in the long run. But the fact is that many will end up staying in their service industry jobs because those will be the only opportunities available to them. That’s why retail workers need to unite and take action now to fight against the industry’s push to make retail jobs “bad jobs.”

Workers in retail can be empowered by coming together on the job, recognizing that they are a critical part of the national workforce, and demanding to share the success with profitable national and international retailers. Union workers at retailers like Macys, H&M, Modells, and Bloomingdales already know that having a union voice on the job means they’ll be compensated and treated in a way that reflects their hard work. They’re able to bargain the middle class wages and health care benefits they earn and deserve.

With a union on the job, empowered retail workers can bolster the growing service industry and re-create the modern middle class that workers had in the past, and what we certainly need now.


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March 28, 2012

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