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Resistance in Retail workshop shares how retailers sell workers short

June 26, 2010

“Resistance in Retail,” a Friday morning workshop st the US Social Forum, brought together a panel of labor organizers that included Grand Rapids’ own Cole Dorsey, IWW Starbucks Union. Others on the panel represented New York City’s Retail Action Project (RAP) and Common Threads Art Collective, Wake Up Walmart and Chicago’s Grassroots Collaborative.

The panel starting by describing today’s retail workers  and how retailers are making millions on their backs. For the most part, retail workers are not teenagers, college students or folks working to get out of the house and earn a little spending money. The huge majority of retail workers are supporting themselves, and very often their families, on wages so low that they have to work two or three different jobs just to make ends meet. The majority are people of color.

Retailers either offer no benefits or benefits hinged on an hours-worked quota system purposely coupled with an inability to get hours, preventing workers from accessing them. In other cases, (J.C. Penney and Whole Foods were cited as an examples), workers are terminated when they have enough seniority for benefits or, when benefits depend on being full-time, they are terminated and offered part-time positions at new-hire hourly rates.

“New York City retailers’ had 70% growth in sales from 2001 to 2007 but still pay the lowest wages–44%  earn less than $10 an hour, an outrage in New York City where the cost of living is so high,” shared Chimuka, who works  at Yellow Rat Bastard, a high-end skateboard  and apparel shop in Manhattan. “It is like killing somebody.” He started at $6.25 hour but fought with RAP and won a union contract that guaranteed better wages for the store’s workers.

Romuald Ilboudo concurred. He stood up for better wages at Scoop NYC, a store frequented by the stars and paying workers poverty wages. “RAP taught us how to fight,” he said. “One, know your rights. Many retail workers are immigrants and need confidence. Learn how to approach new workers and mobilize them. (High turnover rates in retail make organizing difficult). Two, develop strategies for organizing and using media. And three, know how to file a complaint and where to get legal counsel. When we got fired, we received a $300,000 award.”

The Common Threads Art Collective is a group of RAP associated retail workers who are also artists. They put on exhibits that not only provide a venue for selling their work, but also make statements about the plight of retail workers. They also stage creative direct actions. They have handed out “subversive” coupons, displayed mannequins with a message outside of retailers, hosted a bread line and dressed as elves during the Christmas season.

Others on the workshop panel had fewer victories to share. Even though Walmart, as the world’s largest retailer, is guilty of the most heinous strategies for denying workers fair compensation, Wake Up Walmart faces a real struggle to get Walmart workers organized. But, Cynthia and Ernestine, two Walmart workers on the panel, are not giving up. “People are scared and have a right to be scared,” Cynthia said. “But with unity, we can overcome.”

Ernestine described her Walmart store as a plantation, with the store manager as an overseer. “No matter how hard we work, it’s never enough. To work like that on a daily basis and be paid such low wages, have your hours cut, be promised bonuses and not receive them, with no healthcare . . . Walmart makes billions of dollars and most of its workers are on food stamps and receiving government medical assistance. They can pick us off individually, but together we can make it work.”

Chicago’s Grassroots Collaborative has been fighting Walmart for six years. The morning of the workshop, they were dealt a stinging defeat. Chicago city government gave the go-ahead for the retail Goliath to build the first 22 planned Walmarts there. As part of its strategy to keep the retailer out, Grassroots Collaborative fought and won the passage of the Big Box Living Wage Ordinance. Mayor Daly vetoed it. A subsequent ordinance that requires corporations receiving subsidies or tax incentives to pay a living wage did pass, but probably will not help people working for Chicago’s new Walmarts.

“Six years of work went down this week,” said Amisha Patel, executive director of Grassroots Collaborative. “We’re taking on huge battles, we’re fighting capitalism. Capitalism is collapsing, but it’s collapsing on us.”

###

After reading this post, Amisha asked to clarify a few things in a comment.  “I spoke about the discouragement of not winning all you want to in this work. In Chicago, we had worked to win higher wages for retail workers than was achieved this week. But getting walmart to sit down at the table and agree to wages $1 above minimum is a victory- it’s something we all must continue to build on.
We introduced the living wage for subsidized corporations bill, which would ensure that companies that get tax dollars don’t create poverty jobs. When passed, this bill could transform thousands of poverty jobs to living wage jobs, which absolutely would create more good jobs in the retail sector. We’re still working to move this forward.
Finally, I spoke about the discouragement of how hard it is to create transformative economic policies, but also that we get to feel those hard feelings and move through them so that we can keep working in a connected and powerful way. Capitalism will continue to work to keep us isolated, but we absolutely can and must keep working to build trust across divisions and build the labor-community coalitions that will win power for working families.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. wageslave permalink
    June 26, 2010 5:13 pm

    Great article Stelle!

  2. June 27, 2010 8:08 am

    Thanks for writing this article. There are a few things I’d like to clarify. I spoke about the discouragement of not winning all you want to in this work. In Chicago, we had worked to win higher wages for retail workers than was achieved this week. But getting walmart to sit down at the table and agree to wages $1 above minimum is a victory- it’s something we all must continue to build on.
    We introduced the living wage for subsidized corporations bill, which would ensure that companies that get tax dollars don’t create poverty jobs. When passed, this bill could transform thousands of poverty jobs to living wage jobs, which absolutely would create more good jobs in the retail sector. We’re still working to move this forward.
    Finally, I spoke about the discouragement of how hard it is to create transformative economic policies, but also that we get to feel those hard feelings and move through them so that we can keep working in a connected and powerful way. Capitalism will continue to work to keep us isolated, but we absolutely can and must keep working to build trust across divisions and build the labor-community coalitions that will win power for working families.

  3. Sue Kornoely permalink
    June 29, 2010 4:19 pm

    Interesting to see that J. C. Penney was cited. Maybe that is the real reason I was let go. Great article. Thanks for sending it on.

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  1. RETAIL ACTION PROJECT » GRIID: Resistance in Retail Workshop Shares How Retailers Sell Workers Short

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