Retail Workers Need Unions, Too  

I worked my way through college selling makeup at a fancy-schmancy department store. So whenever I start in about the terrible working conditions, hours, wages, and unfair treatment--and how much we needed a union-- the eye-rolling usually starts after a few seconds.

Yeah, yeah, I know--it wasn't backbreaking manual labor, and my life and limbs weren't (usually) in danger. But we have to get away from the kind of thinking that says only those who do the most difficult and dangerous work need a union, and that everyone else should just quit whining. Especially when retail workers are a huge part of the service sector, the fastest growing sector in the American economy. And especially when a large percentage of those retail workers are female, and face special hardships at work due to extra obligations to children and family.

When I worked at the department store, which I shall not name, I was just a college kid. So I suffered through because I figured it was just a temporary miserableness. But many of my fellow workers were lifers, talented salespeople or makeup artists, and often the sole or primary breadwinner for their families. And what they needed, though they would never have even thought of it, was a voice in the workplace, speaking out for them. A union voice, to help them improve their wages, benefits, and working conditions.

I saw pregnant women not allowed to sit on stools or chairs, forced on busy days to stand for five or six hours at a time before being allowed to take a break. I saw women forced to carry heavy boxes and equipment every morning, and I also saw plenty of older women with back problems and knee problems doing the same. I saw a co-worker cut her hand open on a piece of jagged glass in our display case, the same piece of glass that we'd complained about endlessly and gotten no response on until the injury. Another co-worker accidentally dropped a heavy table on my leg, and the first thing I was asked to do when the managers all came running was to sign a waiver that the company was not responsible. I did so, not knowing any better, because my leg hurt and I wanted to go to the doctor as soon as possible to check it out--and they wouldn't let me go until I'd signed. (I still have a scar from that injury.) When a serial rapist was on the loose in my town, attacking women in mall parking lots, management still refused to let us women park close to the building, forcing us instead to walk alone in the dark as late as midnight across a deserted parking lot to get to our cars.

And there were other hurts, too--not physical but mental. We were constantly threatened with firing for everything: not opening credit cards, not forcing customers to buy "add-ons" that the company stuck on our counters, not sucking up to the right manager or the right boss. In fact, you could be fired because another co-worker made up something about you--and believe me, in an all female environment, there's a lot of that going on. Management liked to promote conflict between the female workers, because they believed it made us more productive sales people. If we didn't like each other, we wouldn't "stand around chatting," in the words of one of my bosses. As if women weren't intersted in making money, or doing a good job--nope, we were just a bunch of chatterboxes, us crazy females.

No matter how long you were there or how hard you worked, you might never get a promotion, based solely on who liked you and who didn't. You never got the hours you wanted, there was no such thing as a set schedule, and quarterly raises were about 5 cents an hour. (They could, of course, be more, depending on your performance review, but somehow no one ever had a good performance review.) If you got scheduled for rotten hours, you might not make any money at all besides your (very low) base pay.

We had to work on every major holiday or shopping day, were not allowed to take a whole weekend off unless we used vacation hours, and even then it was only allowed during "non-blackout days," as if our lives were some sort of frequent flyer exemption. I missed weddings, funerals, family gatherings, and most of all, holiday time with my family. And at least I didn't have children, unlike many of my co-workers, who missed an awful lot of precious weekend and holiday time with their kids. One older women who retired when I was there told me, "This will be the first day-after-Thanksgiving I've gotten to sleep in and spend with my family for thirty five years. "

All this was, like I said, bearable because I knew it would eventually end. And I thought there was no remedy. This is how it was. Life was unfair, bosses were unfair, and most people couldn't afford health care. (You sure couldn't afford it at my workplace...I didn't know anyone who had health care through our company.) But once I started working at the United Food and Commerical Workers, I had a very different perspective. Suddenly I was outraged. I wanted to go back in time, to tell my co-workers that we did have a choice--we didn't have to be resigned to unfair treatment and crappy working conditions, to being bullied and recieving very little compensation.

I can't go back in time. But I am thrilled to be organizing retail workers, women and men, who deserve better at work. This is something that we're doing a lot more of these days at the UFCW, and it's such important just to LET retail workers know that there is a remedy for what they suffer at work. Better wages, working conditions, and equal pay for equal work were issues championed in the early days of the UFCW movement and are still extremely important to improving the lives of workers today.

UFCW has members at stores like Macy’s, Bloomingdale's, Saks 5th Avenue, and other retail giants--members who are realizing the strength they have when they stick together and demand fair treatment. One of our local unions, RWDSU/UFCW Local 1102 recently organized 1,000 new H&M workers at nine Manhattan stores. Through UFCW representation, the new members will have an opportunity to negotiate innovative employment standards, in addition to wage and benefit improvements, including a partnership for engaging in socially and environmentally responsible programs. And we're only expanding organizing retail workers from here.

After all, every worker deserves a safe and secure job--a job that pays the bills and allows them to raise a family. It's only fair.

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2 comments

  • Glenn  
    12:51 PM

    I wish walgreens workers had a union :(

  • Harper Mcbride  
    2:32 AM

    All I really hope so is that every retail business will make certain that their employees health, safety and wellness are highly prioritized.

    We all know than lives can be affected by how one life is going on, such as you mentioned that a retail worker has a family whom he/she supports.

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