Transcribed from the 24 September 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
Retail workers are concentrated at the end of complex global chains. Their structural power, the ability that they have to bring employers to the bargaining table, is less than other parts of the chain, all the way back to production itself. Working around that structural challenge is one of the main issues facing retail workers trying to get back to some form of unionization that actually makes a difference.
Chuck Mertz: Retail is America’s largest low-wage, non-union service industry. So what’s keeping retail workers from organizing for better pay, more benefits, and jobs that have greater security?
Here to tell us is sociologist Peter Ikeler, author of Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains. Peter is assistant professor of sociology at SUNY college at Old Westbury. Welcome to This is Hell!, Peter.
Peter Ikeler: Great to be here, Chuck.
CM: You write, “Of the nine major service sectors defined by the US census, education and health, wholesale and retail, and professional and business services are the largest. The first are mainly in the public sector and because of that are highly unionized. Professional and business services, though only three percent unionized, employ mostly professional workers whose average wages are well above the private sector mean. In retail, however, fewer than ten percent of workers or managers are professionals, and their average wages are just 63% of the private sector mean. Nearly twelve percent of all US workers are employed in retail, but fewer than five percent of them are union members. Retail is America’s largest low-wage, non-union service industry, and thus fertile terrain for the exploration of class consciousness.”
To what degree do you think retail workers are aware that they are America’s largest low-wage, non-union service industry?
PI: A lot of retail workers are aware. The workers I spoke to were consciously planning to move on to other things. Folks, especially young folks, who work in retail trades see it as a stepping stone to something else. Whether that actually turns out to be true in their individual cases is contingent on a multitude of factors.
But retail is a very, very big sector. It employs over fifteen million workers across America today. And for as you just laid out, it’s very low-wage, with very few managerial positions and very high turnover. And unionization is essentially negligible: it’s less than five percent nationally, which means that unions in the retail sector have no impact on the overall wage rate. This is a very different scenario from what we see in some other industries today, and also in other major private sector industries going back forty or fifty years: even if only a minority of workers were in unions, they still had an outsized role in helping to raise the wages of those outside the union framework.
CM: Your book starts off, “The strike, almost: On June sixteenth, 2011, more than four thousand workers at four New York Macy’s stores came within hours of walking off the job.” But then you also add that “the union agreed to a tepid five year deal and called off the strike.”
Tepid? How easily convinced are retail workers not to go on strike? Does it take very little? Does it take only tepid concessions?
PI: There is a multitude of factors that influence that. The interesting thing is that it just happened again this summer. I was doing that research right at the time of the last Macy’s New York area bargaining round, and it happened again because now we’re five years in on the five-year contract. And again they threatened to strike, and they came very, very close—a lot of people were watching, I was certainly paying very close attention—and again they called it off at the last minute.
Most of the agitation, the action around contract bargaining at Macy’s (which in Newark and other parts of the country are unionized; it’s a minority of the firm, but there still is a base for unionism in contracts) is defending past gains. This is what they’re organizing around in each campaign: to not have to pay more for health insurance, to not have to lose more full-time hours. Pay has gone up very minimally on the basis of bargaining.
So it’s tough to say. It cuts both ways. On the one hand, retail unions—the ones that there are—are under huge pressures. They are in a very hostile environment. They are trying to do the best they can in a very difficult time in a difficult political economic infrastructure. At the same time, there are things some unions—both in retail and in other services—could be doing in terms of trying to activate and reach their membership.
Although the Macy’s union in New York City (RWDSU Local 1-S) is fairly active—they have a network of shop stewards that links workers to the officials—there’s more that they could be doing, especially to reach out to younger workers and to bring them into the fold and possibly even launch strike actions if the necessary sorts of alliances have been built around the city and preparations are done to actually carry that through to a success, and not have it be an unfortunate loss strike, which happened in another scenario in southern California in the early 2000s.
CM: I want to get back to the specific impediments to unionization, the obstacles and challenges that retail workers face, but let’s talk about de-unionization and anti-unionization in general just for a second. You write, “Front and center in most accounts of labor’s decline since the 1970s is a set of processes summed up by the word ‘globalization,’ defined as the expansion of economic activity beyond the borders of nation-states.”
In your opinion, how much is globalization responsible for de-unionization in the United States? Because the weakening of unions is often linked to Reagan and his 1981 firing of all the air traffic controllers who wanted to strike—and isn’t that prior to what we see as globalization today?
PI: That’s a really good point, Chuck. The public discourse that we hear a lot is “Globalization makes unions irrelevant; people working in China and Mexico are going to take your jobs.” There’s all kinds of strange nationalist rhetoric that gets wrapped up in those explanations. But a lot of the more detailed work that has been done on these subjects shows that although the threat of plant closures and moving to low-wage countries is definitely part of the picture, another huge factor in the US has been extremely hostile employer resistance to unions: deliberate attempts to break unions, to force workers out on strike—through a lock-out or through aggressive bargaining—in a position where they know that they can’t win. We’ve seen this throughout the US, especially in your area, Chicago and throughout the Midwest, with auto and heavy industry.
There’s also moving to the South: there is this whole internal region in America which, although it is not another country, there are very different laws (mainly “Right to Work” laws) and the wage levels are much lower. A lot of plants have moved down south.
To turn to retail specifically: retail is in a weird position. On the one hand, you can’t outsource front line retail jobs to another country. Like many service industries, the stores and the workers have to be near the consumers themselves, at least in the brick-and-mortar stores. But at the same time, Nelson Lichtenstein, who I cite a lot in the book, has really shown how Walmart and other large big-box firms have profited greatly—at least their corporate heads have profited greatly—from globalization, being able to utilize flows of low priced goods (which they’ve gotten on the basis of low wages in China and other producing countries), bring them over through integrated logistics, and then spread them around through their distribution networks and finally to the outlets. All along that chain there are points of vulnerability for the firms if workers strike (and there’s a lot of work going on exploring the logistics workers).
Retail workers themselves, the store workers, are concentrated at the end of these complex global chains. Their structural power, the ability that they have to bring employers to the bargaining table, is somewhat less than those other parts of the chain, all the way back to production itself. Working around that structural challenge poses one of the main issues in trying to figure out how retail can get back to some form of unionization that actually makes a difference.
CM: You write, “Employers, however, do not act alone. The Reagan Revolution consisted of a series of government actions that greatly augmented the power of capital over labor: financial and industrial deregulation, reduced taxes on wealth, the firing by presidential fiat of more than 11,000 air traffic controllers, and the restructuring of the National Labor Relations Board from an ostensibly neutral body to one with a decidedly pro-business tilt.”
Business is always complaining about regulations and government interference with the market. How much does the government interfere with the market when it comes to the labor side of the argument? To what degree do government regulations undermine labor power?
PI: One of the main ways is by not providing a feasible framework for unionization to happen. We had the Wagner Act in 1935, but it has been greatly undermined by case law since then. What we have today is an industrialization framework, legally, that is completely out of date with the actual reality on the ground. Part of that reality has been produced by employers’ deliberate circumvention of it.
Through the sixties, seventies, and eighties especially, firms started to move away from a large facility in a single place, to spread out their facilities. That was one geographic and institutional-technological way of getting around the type of workplace-oriented negotiating that the NLRB and the Wagner Act had set up. There are a number of other ways they’ve gone around it: through spending millions of dollars every year on anti-union consultants and union-prevention tactics, having whole in-house teams that respond to cases of unionization and try to squelch them, put them out.
The unpredictability of interacting with people, the emotional dimension of retail work does create new feelings and experiences among workers, but it does not negate the chance for worker solidarity or unionism. It just creates a different method in which it most actively takes place, and different types of demands that get put forward.
The point here is that there is a legal process, but most serious labor scholars will look at it and say unionization efforts are likely to fail. The vast majority of unions that try to go through the legal mechanisms of NLRB elections don’t succeed. Where we’re seeing some amazing successes is outside of that framework, with worker centers, community unionism, and a revival of direct action pressure tactics.
But the government is not playing as direct a role in suppressing unionization as it once did a hundred years ago; it’s not bringing out the National Guard and shooting workers, thankfully. That’s a positive thing. But nonetheless, labor law reform on a pretty fundamental scale would be necessary for the state to play any kind of constructive role in helping workers. What they’re doing right now by their inaction is essentially helping employers.
CM: But the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 is a federal law that restricts union activities and power. And as you write, “pro-business, anti-union reforms did not end with the Republican reign in 1992 but continued under Bill Clinton, whose signature achievements were the signing of NAFTA and the curtailing of welfare benefits.”
How much does legislation like Taft-Hartley undermine union campaign donations, for instance, and make them less attractive to the Democratic Party than corporate donors are? And how much does Taft-Hartley undermine the ability for retail workers in particular to unionize?
PI: Taft-Hartley was a pretty monumental piece of legislation. Looking back on it, it’s kind of amazing that it got passed in that period. 1946 saw the biggest wave of strikes in American history. More workers walked off the job in more militant ways than ever before or since. Only a year after that, Taft-Hartley passed, really hobbling the ability of unions to organize and agitate. It’s amazing that it even happened, looking back on it.
Two things stand out in the Taft-Hartley law of 1947. One was that it limited the ability of unions to work in solidarity using the so-called secondary boycott. This made a big difference in retail, where a lot of unionization cases, especially in groceries, derived from solidarity and cooperation with the Teamsters, the trucking union, with trucking workers refusing to deliver goods when retail workers were on strike. That kind of solidarity, which was really crucial to setting up a lot of the grocery unions, was made much more difficult by Taft-Hartley.
The other way Taft-Hartley really hurt retail unions specifically is that one of the most militant and successful retail unions was the RWDSU, or its forerunner, rather, in the New York and East Coast area. It had heavy Communist influence. People might have all kinds of views about the Communist Party—they did a lot of bad things, and they also had a lot of very dedicated labor organizers on the ground. And the Taft-Hartley bill required union leaders to sign non-Communist affidavits, which ignited a civil war within US labor and purged a lot of unions of some of their most militant, dedicated elements.
We really have not seen growth in unions since then. Whether that’s entirely attributable to Taft-Hartley is a somewhat open question, but those are two ways in which that really old piece of legislation contributed to the hobbling of retail unions.
CM: So the Cold War commie scare is still undermining unionism in the United States today?
PI: It undermined its ability to grow and solidify in an era of strength. Retail unionism never got a toehold in a major enough firm. Sears was the biggest corporation; it was the Walmart of the fifties and sixties, the major dominant retailer. And it was never unionized in any major fashion. Some would say it was a tactical mistake unions made; there was a huge strike at Montgomery Ward during the war in the 1940s, maybe they should have targeted Sears instead. But because of Taft-Hartley and because of the internal strife that the anti-Communist stuff caused in the unions, they were never able to tackle the really big firm in retail in that era when labor had more power.
And since the seventies we’ve seen a steady whittling-away, with ferocious attacks on unions, so it’s been an even tougher environment for retail unions in particular to get back in gear. Basically what I’m arguing is that if they could have gotten a toehold in bigger firms in that period when there was much more potential, we could be having a very different conversation today. It might not have opened the door to the low-road non-union model that we see in Walmart, Target, and a lot of other firms.
CM: You write, “A final oft-cited cause of union decline is more secular in nature. Touted by some as ‘the great hope of the twentieth century’ and by others as a ‘force for the end of ideology,’ the rise of service employment is frequently given as a reason for union decline due to the sector’s supposedly less alienating conditions.”
Does social interaction with coworkers and customers create more content workers? Because while working in retail, yes, I was less isolated from other workers than when I worked in a factory, but that interaction with coworkers in the service industry brought about a lot of unhappiness with the company. Not that we did anything about it, but I heard more complaints in retail than in any other sector where I have ever worked—especially at the factory, but that’s probably because the factory was very loud.
PI: That’s an excellent question, and that’s really what I spend most of the book investigating. There were a lot of assumptions generated in the seventies and the eighties about the move to a service economy, which we can now evaluate since service, in some form or another, is more than eighty percent of the workforce; it’s almost meaningless to say “service” and not qualify it otherwise, there are so many different forms of service work.
Some looks a little more like manufacturing, when we’re talking about moving and delivering goods. But I focused on interactive service, which is a very large portion of what people do in 21st century economies, interacting with people as part of their daily work: interacting with customers, interacting with students, interacting with clients, or with patients for that matter. And there has been a lot of theorizing about this interactive dynamic, about having an actual living human being as the “material” that you’re working on—it’s not a piece of metal, it’s not a piece of wood, it’s not an object being moved or a machine that you’re operating, it’s another human being that you’re interacting with and whose needs you are trying to meet and to negotiate with.
A lot of people have thought that this was going to radically change employment dynamics. All of Marx’s ideas were about a factory (that’s not entirely true; Marx had a lot of passages where he talked about service workers, but this is the conception that we’ve been given), so if it’s not just workers and the boss like in a factory, the old kinds of consciousness that might have led to socialism or at least to a stronger union movement are going to be much harder, if not impossible to generate. The service economy is going to be a post-capitalist affair where it’s all about identity and it’s about the narratives we tell ourselves about how we get through the day, and what we negotiate on the spot with customers or with managers is more contingent and up for grabs.
This has been the dominant set of ideas which are presented in the public and academic discourse over the past twenty or thirty years, and I acknowledge that service work is definitely something different from non-interactive jobs. It’s not the same as working in a factory, it’s not the same as doing pure clerical work where you’re just working with paper or a computer, or filing the entire day. And customers can piss you off! They can be a real source of annoyance. At the same time they can be a source of human connection and reward. And it might change from one customer to the next: you might have one person in a really bad mood who insults you and gives you a really hard time, and then someone comes in who is very kind and patient and you end up serving their needs and you feel great about yourself.
This unpredictability of interacting with people, this emotional dimension that a lot of people have talked about does create new feelings and experiences among workers, but I find that it does not negate the chance for worker solidarity or unionism. It just creates a different method in which it most actively takes place, and different types of demands that get put forward.
There was a time in the seventies when work itself was a key feature of what labor scholars and activists were looking at: what does work do to workers’ consciousness? Is it being degraded? Is work more alienating than it used to be? And is this creating a consciousness that might lead workers either to rebel or to consent to capitalist domination?
CM: So do retail workers, then, because of the interaction that they have with their customers, feel more responsible to their customers than maybe a factory worker would?
PI: That’s a great question. Like you know, I didn’t study factory workers. I studied two groups of retail workers, at Macy’s and at Target. I can say a lot about how they differ from each other and some commonalities that they have. But I didn’t investigate a group of factory workers; I can’t really make that comparative case.
What I can say is that there’s definitely a more immediate reaction if you screw up a service interaction. In many cases if you screw up in goods production, you might be marked down for that, in a factory environment; you might be reprimanded by your superior, but in a lot of cases it might just go further down the chain, and by the time it gets noticed as a bad product or something that went wrong, it’s usually out of your hands, or it’s two days later. So there’s definitely more immediacy in the service environment. Things have to happen within the framework of a single interaction, in retail especially, where there’s relatively short-term interactions. We’re not talking about long-term care for the elderly, which is a very different kettle of fish.
But people have needs, and working with them directly and satisfying those needs on a daily basis can be uniquely draining; workers have to put their emotional selves on the line, have to smile when they don’t really feel happy, have to contain it when they want to speak out and say something negative to a customer; they have to hold that in because they don’t want to get in trouble. There are unique stresses to the service environment.
What I find is that those unique stresses do not negate the chances for worker solidarity and opposition to management. In some cases it actually increases. At Target I found that workers cooperate with each other a lot more, because of the structure of the job process. They had a teamwork environment that would provide a very fertile ground for unionization if unions could appropriately tap into the solidarity that’s already being generated in these kinds of work processes.
CM: You quote Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research and senior lecturer at Cornell University school of industrial and labor relations: “I want to ‘bring the study of work back to labor studies.’”
Why wouldn’t labor studies focus on the study of work? And what is lost when you don’t study work when analyzing labor?
PI: I don’t think anybody’s been deliberately ignoring it. There are always fads and there are always things that get put by the wayside over the decades as people do research and interrogate certain issues. Around 2010-2011, I’d been reading a lot of the literature and a lot of people were concerned with union revitalization, union renewal. Scholars and activists focus on how the union movement can grow again, how unions can matter again, how workers can get the protections that they need and start to fight back against the staggering inequality that we’re facing.
And they approach this question from a lot of various angles. They look at the role of immigrants, which is this huge and diverse part of the American working class, and the role that they play and the cultures that they bring with them. My mentor, Ruth Milkman, has contributed a lot in that dimension. Other folks have looked at new forms of unionism: worker centers, alt-labor, these other bodies that might get around some of the legal hindrances to unionization. More folks have looked at how to revitalize existing unions through rank-and-file democracy—that’s one of the main points that the Labor Notes publication emphasizes: for the unions that do exist, how can we make them more democratic and more militant?
But I noticed that work itself gets lost in the shuffle; few folks were looking at work. There was a time in the seventies when that was a key feature of what labor scholars and activists were looking at: what does work do to workers’ consciousness? Is it being degraded? Is work more alienating than it used to be? And is this creating a consciousness that might lead workers either to rebel or to consent to capitalist domination?
The famous theorist Michael Burawoy, now at UC-Berkeley, worked at a machineshop just outside of Chicago in the late seventies, and he argued that the work process had been restructured as a game, so that workers felt they were getting ahead or “winning” by getting through the daily game, and this generated consent to the rules of the workplace and ultimately the capitalist system, and therefore kept workers from rebelling.
That was a very provocative thesis, and I’m not entirely sure it holds true today or even if it held true in a wider sense back then, but you can see at that time people were really looking at work itself. What do people do every day on the job? How does it influence their consciousness? And how does it influence their group formation and willingness to fight back and join together in networks of workers and associations?
That had been lost. Nobody that I had read had really done a sustained analysis of the big low-wage sectors we see today—retail, fast food, and so on—with a view to union organizing. A lot of people are looking at service work, but nobody is looking at it through a lens of how it contributes to the possibilities for worker resistance. So that’s what I tried to bring back. I try to look at that question of union renewal (which a lot of people have toyed with and continue to investigate) but through the lens of work itself and how workers feel, what they want, and how they interact with their fellows.
CM: You write, “The sociologist Michael Mann defined class consciousness as having four distinct moments: ‘Class identity, the definition of oneself as working class, as playing a distinctive role in common with other workers in the productive process; Class opposition, the perception that the capitalist and his agents constitute an enduring opponent to oneself; Class totality, the acceptance of the two previous elements; And finally comes the conception of an alternative society, a goal towards which one moves through the struggle with the opponent.’”
It seems to me that most people in the retail sector who I worked with understood the first three components there, but not necessarily the one about a possible alternative society. How much does the idea of TINA, that There Is No Alternative, undermine the ability of retail and service workers to unionize?
PI: That’s a fantastic question. I spoke to 75 frontline workers at Macy’s and Target, and like a lot of us in early 21st century American capitalism most of them had a tough time envisioning something else. Slavoj Žižek, the European theorist who takes a lot of heat for some of his strange thoughts, sometimes hits a positive one—he argues that it is easier for us today to imagine the end of the world (with all these disaster movies of asteroids hitting the earth or a virus killing us all) than it is to imagine a more modest alteration in the mode of production towards something like socialism, or a democratic restructuring of the economy.
And I think you hit the nail on the head; TINA, the idea popularized by Margaret Thatcher that There Is No Alternative, is an ideological offensive that has been promoted very aggressively since 1980, in this era of regarding capitalism as the End of History (the Soviet Union is gone and therefore there’s no way around it). There are these private firms, you work for wages, and hopefully you’ll find an individual path through that and you’ll make ends meet.
A lot of the workers I spoke to had a tough time getting around that dominant ideology. That’s received wisdom for a lot of us. We might have grievances in the day-to-day sense; we might have very vital issues that we’re dealing with—trying to get childcare, trying to get healthcare, trying to get enough wages to pay the rent—and none of these things are negligible by any means. It’s tough to envision beyond that.
What would a situation in which I don’t pay rent to a landlord look like? What would a situation look like in which I’m guaranteed a living wage for my job, or healthcare is not a commodity to be bought and sold, and in many cases sold for an exorbitant price?
I don’t want to paint only a negative picture. One woman who had been at Macy’s for almost ten years said to me that Macy’s should be city-owned—then it would work better, like public-sector jobs. She was voicing the idea that this private corporation which she was very familiar with should effectively be socialized, or nationalized and brought into a different framework of property rather than the private corporation that it is.
Folks who voiced ideas like this were definitely in the minority of those who I spoke to, but I would not by any means say that visions of some kind of an alternative—however modest or revolutionary—are absent. People, when pushed on it, and when they’ve had the experience for long periods of time, start of their own accord to think about how things could be different, and what that could actually look like, concretely. And then the questions become practical; how do we get there?
CM: Peter, thanks so much for being on This is Hell! this week.
PI: Thank you; it’s been great fun.
Featured image source: Local 1-S Macy’s Workers (Facebook)