In a society where shopping is a national pastime, why is selling stuff such a dreadful job?
Economic forecasters are warning that retail jobs are going extinct, citing chain-store shutdowns and mass layoffs across the country. So what about the millions of retail workers still out there, worried about slipping from poverty wages to full-fledged joblessness?
Retail doom is actually far from inevitable. According to an analysis from the Russell Sage Foundation by Françoise Carré and Chris Tilly, there’s still an ongoing demand for brick-and-mortar jobs, which, unlike factory jobs, can’t be shipped overseas. And that could make the industry a laboratory for redefining the service sector to provide sustainable livelihoods.
Outside the United States, alternative models are already on display. We can learn a lot from how other wealthy industrialized nations have managed to make retail jobs decent jobs, maybe even good careers. Countries like Germany and France have avoided the big-box model of low wages and irregular part-time work, through government policies, labor organization, and corporate practices that support more equitably structured workplaces. There’s no magic formula; it just requires listening to workers.
That makes retail a good laboratory for organizing strategies that give labor and policy-makers leverage to advocate for economic change. Across the Atlantic, both government and organized labor have been mutually reinforcing drivers of fair labor conditions and humanely designed workplaces.
In France and Germany, the retail industry offers living-wage union jobs, with stable schedules and comprehensive training programs—not because their bosses are saints, but because they apply a business model that prioritizes job quality above maximizing hours and cutting costs.
In the United States, big corporate retailers treat employees as disposable, interchangeable widgets, and pay accordingly cheap wages. Degrading the real value of their labor pushes the workforce into a precarious cycle of economic insecurity, as well as high turnover, which is costly and unproductive for the company. European retail sectors, however, manage to avoid this cyclical exploitation, through business models and industrial policy that see a business’s value as a function of how much it invests in cultivating a productive, content workforce.
The differences between these models is illustrated in the way workplaces and job schedules are designed. In France, researchers found, customers interact with workers sitting at counters, rather than standing stiffly, a small but telling contrast with the assembly line-like checkouts at US big-box stores that also has an appreciable impact on the workplace mood and in turn promotes greater productivity. At some US retailers, even pregnant workers have trouble getting simple accommodations like a stool to avoid being on their feet all day. German store workers know their schedules six months in advance, but their US counterparts might not even get six days advance notice.
Some US retailers provide more equitable workplace environments. Stores with healthier working environments place workers in more socially engaging positions, like an electronics sales job that goes beyond marketing to offer repair services or other expertise. Such jobs contribute to the overall value of the business; but they also demand long-term training and comparably higher wages.
The crisis of low retail wages in the United States reflects management’s refusal to recognize the value of decent work, creating a cycle of harsh working conditions, miserable staff, and fast turnover. One chain-store employee interviewed for the study explained that even getting promoted often didn’t seem worth the trouble: “There’s not a whole lot of people who want those [head-cashier jobs],” he said. “The big downside for that is they only make a quarter more an hour, but now you have a lot more responsibility.”
Similar contrasts emerge when comparing local planning policies, which can either be geared toward cultivating self-sufficient local economies, or short-term outside-capital injections. The US towns where large corporate retailers have moved to take advantage of “laissez-faire land use policy” have imported larger, generic chain stores, built on “generating more price- and convenience-based competition.” These moves displace more modest mom-and-pop enterprises, and destabilize local economies and social fabric in the process. By contrast, European regional officials tend to regulate business development to protect community-based enterprises, which tend to be more responsive to workers’ needs because they see the local workforce as a long-term investment.
So workplace culture, corporate practices, and policy instruments all help determine job quality. But neither political nor private-sector institutions will be moved without creative organizing from below, which is one area where the US labor movement is actually making some progress. Union-backed grassroots campaigns like the Fight for $15 have propelled movements to raise the minimum wage for millions nationwide. Grassroots advocacy networks like Warehouse Workers United have helped organize across the retail logistical-supply chain. UFCW’s OUR Walmart group has waged pressure campaigns that have spurred modest but modest but significant raises and scheduling reforms.
US labor can also borrow tactics from European counterparts, especially by working together across borders to raise conditions. Tilly cites as one example a solidarity campaign by the H&M union. The unionized workers in H&M’s home country, Sweden, “pressured the company not to oppose unionization in the US, so [UFCW’s retail union, RWDSU] in New York City was able to organize a union, gaining workers better terms of employment and a voice at work.”
But worker-led campaigns like the UFCW’s OUR Walmart are not formal unions, and the initiative has been frustrated by flagging political momentum and a lack of organizing clout across the supply chain. For non-union advocacy campaigns, Tilly says, “given the slow process of building a “minority union” like OUR Walmart, it is important to act now to “raise the floor” with local and state (and some day federal) provisions. Driving policy agendas may prove more fruitful: Jobs with Justice San Francisco pioneered local fair-scheduling policies with the Retail Workers Bill of Rights. With a vision for alleviating inequality nationwide, the National Nurses Union has pushed for a single-payer health-care program.
But promoting worker-centered policies and workplaces requires long-term strategy for empowering working-class communities to resist exploitative jobs. Just as corporations create sustainable workforces through deep structural investment, pushing for fair labor for all requires a labor movement that organizes beyond the next contract battle.
Retail jobs only become dead-end jobs in the absence of a social movements pushing multinational business and policymakers in the right direction. As other countries have shown, a workplace is only as good for workers as the politics of the community surrounding it.