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‘Tis the season for worker defiance: holiday exploitation, speedups, and profits in retail

The holiday season will prove to be a challenging time for retail workers. Often working in part–time or precarious positions for minimum wage, these workers are made responsible for the increase in productivity that accompanies the holiday shopping rush. Workers will be pushed to work harder, faster, and longer so corporations can capitalize on the holiday season and cash in on “shopping holidays” like Black Friday. In the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge, traditional holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve are no longer times of rest for workers either. Instead of spending time with family, they will be exploited for the sake of increased productivity and profits.

Productivity and Compensation

Since the late 1970s, there has been a growing gap between wages/benefits and productivity. While productivity has climbed upward since the late 1970s, real wages adjusted for inflation have not. They have stagnated or flat–lined. Profits and CEO compensation, on the other hand, have skyrocketed. If the minimum wage rose with productivity, as it did after WWII to 1968, it would currently be about $21 an hour.

The CEO–to–worker compensation ratio was 20–to–1 in 1965 and 29.9–to–1 in 1978, grew to 122.6–to–1 in 1995, peaked at 383.4–to–1 in 2000, and was 295.9–to–1 in 2013, 299–1 in 2014, 286–1 in 2015, and 271–1 in 2016, far higher than it was in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s.

How do we explain this? Why would management ask workers to be more productive if they didn’t all benefit? Companies ask workers to be mindful of productivity and profits because they have to convince them that their interests are aligned with the corporation’s. Convincing workers that no crime was committed is the best way to rob them of the fruits of their labor.

The hours that workers put into unloading trucks, putting items on the floor, working carefully with customers so they can make a sale, the outcome of all that sweat and energy and time is returned as profits to the 1% (the richest owners and CEOs of corporations). The portion workers get in the form of wages and benefits are nothing more than breadcrumbs.

Holiday Speed–Up

During the holidays service sector workers experience a disorienting collision of new demands. Temporary workers are hired, increasing competition between workers for hours; sleep and free time are disrupted by a capricious scheduling system; stores open earlier and close later; customers are stressed by having to “keep up with the Joneses;” and time with family is limited by increasing corporate encroachment on the traditional holiday season.

Companies must convince workers that productivity increases can only be attained by speedups— an employer’s demand for accelerated output without increased pay. When one of the authors of this piece worked at retail giant JC Penney, he was told that the company was at a “productivity level” of 150 and needed to get up to 180 through harder and faster work—the meaning of these numbers or what they represented weren’t explained. When the goal was reached there was predictably no increase in pay or benefits to the workers, even though their effort had achieved it.

Often, seasonal hires are thrust into the accelerated pace of days like Black Friday after only working at the company for a few weeks or even days. They hardly have their bearings before they are suddenly expected to work at a pace that is even difficult for experienced workers. Adequate training covering the store’s layout and organization, counterintuitive technology, return and sale policies, and safety procedures are forsaken in the name of speed. The stress this puts on workers is never considered.

 To prevent solidarity between workers, it is common for the management to foster competition and rivalries during the holiday season. Contests for which worker can sell the most credit cards or make the most sales are awarded with prizes like gift cards, food, or even early breaks. Pitting workers against one another lessens the chance that workers will bond and slow down to chat with one another while on the job. While this is a year–round practice, managers are especially encouraged to create a competitive atmosphere and extinguish any sparks of mutual aid and collective worker defiance during the holidays.

Adding insult to injury, holiday working conditions are often framed as “part of the job” or “what workers signed up for” to provide an illusion to shoppers that workers have consented to these conditions. It is insinuated that workers “choose” or are “excited” to work the harrowing hours and conditions of Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas Eve and other holiday sales. Some stores even force their workers dress up in holiday themed clothing—Santa hats, reindeer antlers, elf ears, etc. In truth, even calling in sick on these days would most likely mean getting fired.

How Can We Support Workers?

Although the retail sector employs over fifteen million workers in the United States, union organizers have largely forsaken it. Since the 1980s, the trend of de–unionization has sharply decreased overall union density and presently the unionization rates of retail workers are close to zero. This has not always been the case. According to In These Times,

“Retail had 15 percent union density in the 1970s, […] with the density rate in grocery stores surpassing 31 percent at its peak in 1983. But, as with the rest of the labor movement, retail unionism has taken a steep fall since the early 1980s.”

We don’t currently have the power to destroy the retail industry and replace it with cooperatives. We have the unfortunate but necessary task of agitating, educating, and organizing at these workplaces, as they exist now. Instead of Leftists graduating from college only to work for NGOs as professional activists, we have to remember how to connect with everyday people. We are not superheroes that will swoop in and rescue the day. Yet many frustrated workers are alone with no training or idea of how to change “the way things are.”

Management has studied and shaped the workplace to be hostile to unionization, we too need to study and shape the workplace to be friendly to worker power. We can learn from the best practices of workplace organizing and ask why they haven’t all worked in retail in the past. Then, we can refine the ones that work and experiment with new tactics. We can start by developing friendships, networks, and support systems with coworkers. Together we can find a way forward and become the leaders that will make bosses tremble.

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