A glance across the exhibit halls of the National Retail Federation’s annual conference gives little indication that this sector is the country’s largest employer. Inside the glass-walled Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the west side of Midtown Manhattan, the human fray shuffles beneath a skyline of towering displays that compete with one another to present the most alluring glimpse of a spotless, angular, automated future. They announce countless machines for point of sale, for payments, for disembodied experience. Mixed among them, one slowly begins to notice, is trace evidence of actual retail workers—for instance, a “gamified” console “to help sales associates personalize in-store shopper interaction.” Another display summarizes the prevailing ambition: “Sell more…manage less.”
Somewhere on that floor this past January, Carrie Gleason was rapt in conversation with a salesman from Workplace, a British firm whose software allows managers to optimize workers’ shifts hour by hour for maximum profit. She plied him with detailed questions, discovering in the process that the software can schedule only four weeks ahead, and that it really works best day-to-day. He walked her through both the worker-facing mobile version and the managers’ back end. When he tried to seal some kind of deal, Gleason explained a bit about the nature of her interest—without exactly volunteering the fact that she happens to be a labor organizer.
Next, she visited the exhibit of another company, Kronos, this one topped with a gigantic, 007-style silhouette of three workers wielding mobile devices instead of pistols. Beneath them, the display proposes: “Your secret weapon for growth. ASSOCIATES.” Gleason continued her line of questioning. In the back end of the Kronos system, she could see the top-level screens where human-resource directors set certain basic parameters: How long can the shifts be? How strongly should the workers’ preferences be considered? She asked about the reports that the system can generate. Never before has it been possible to get such good, easy data on employment practices. Enforcing labor laws could be a breeze.
“#nrf15 technology shows how a #fairworkweek is possible,” Gleason tweeted. “But it’s up to retailers to give #SchedulesThatWork.”
Later, she went to a presentation featuring Dawn Bernick, the executive in charge of switching cellphone retailer Wireless Vision from scheduling on spreadsheets to using Workplace. One speaker approvingly cited a report by the Retail Action Project, an organization that Gleason cofounded. “When employees and employers communicate in a transparent way,” Bernick said, “we can cocreate happiness.” (Happiness, in Workplace, is measured on a scale of one to five.)
After the presentation, Gleason asked more questions and nodded to the answers. Yet, privately, she didn’t share Bernick’s optimism. This technology certainly can be a force for worker justice, but she knew too well how, by and large, it is actually used.
The previous November, Gleason had been in Washington, testifying at a congressional briefing about how unpredictable schedules and permanently part-time jobs have created a crisis for workers across the United States. As director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, she is one of the people orchestrating what may be a historic change—and comeback—for the labor movement.