Monday, March 30, 2015

The Service Economy (Or, F@#$ You Very Much), Part 1

 Cashiering Equals Bottom-Feeding?

Here’s a story: On a cool September morning a couple wanders into a bookstore, promptly engages one of the booksellers in a hunt for various books on the local flora and fauna and hiking trails. They are very demanding. The guy is a non-stop talker, keeps making stupid jokes, grinning at the bookseller, looking for a response. His wife or girlfriend looks on, bored – she’s probably heard it all before, has to listen to his endless patter every day.  
One half of the customers who come into this bookstore just want to browse in silence, maybe buy a book or some coffee, and leave with a minimum of chitchat. The other half didn’t come in for the books or for coffee. They came in to be SEEN, to get a bit of attention, and, as an added bonus, maybe get a chance to shame and humiliate the clerks. These customers want to be served. To fill some void inside them? Maybe staunch some inner psychic wound? For whatever reason, they come through those doors as hunters, preying on those they see as weaker than themselves– the anonymous retail clerk – the faceless drone behind the register – the bottom-feeders.
When the couple is ready to check out, they approach the register. Another bookseller rings them up. He has three minutes left on the clock. He hurries through the stack while the gregarious talker picks up the little tchotchke books off the front shelf, one after the other, and makes fun of them with a string of stale jokes (you know the kind of books I’m talking about: the photo books of puppies underwater, or tiny books filled with cute and poignant aphorisms about the trials of marriage...basically, the bestsellers of the 21st, pretty easy targets). He’s trying to get a rise out of the bookseller behind the register, wants to make him laugh, needs to be SEEN.
Unfortunately (for both of them, as it turns out), the bookseller is tired, ready to get out of there. The place has been short-staffed all during the tourist season because the owner had gone on a firing binge three months before. The boss goes on a firing binge every six months, during the lulls between tourist seasons, fearing the low profits will put him out of business. We are in the heart of the service economy now, where there is no job security, no benefits. Most places make you sign a contract stating that you are an at-will employee. Whether your boss is a corporation or a smaller business, that means that you can be fired for no reason whatsoever and there’s nothing you can do about it. And oh, the wages, yes, the wages – the only reason you are there – are low, so low. There is no protection against drunk, paranoid bosses. There is no protection if you get seriously ill and can’t come in to work for a couple of weeks or months. There is no protection against anything (unless, of course, you unionize – but more on that later).
As a worker in Service America, you have no rights. And why should you, you worthless bottom-feeder, why don’t you go out and get a real job?

A Real Job?
(Or: 1/3 of Workers in the US are in the Service Economy*)
I’ve always been fascinated with this term: a real job. People in the US use it all the time. We all know what it implies: there are crap jobs and there are good jobs. The non-real job is one that is shitty, with pay so low that no one can sustain working them for very long; you know, a boring or humiliating job that, if you are middle class, you would only condescend to do during high school and the summers between your youthful, drunken college years.
So, the real would be the opposite: doing something that gives you a salary, an actual living (ability to buy a working car, get it fixed when it needs it; buy a house; have health insurance, a pension, and maybe various other benefits, etc.); a job where you are able to go to the bathroom whenever you damn well please, without asking anyone, or getting someone to cover for you. A real job is doing something that might give you a sense of dignity, maybe something that makes you feel as if you are actually doing something in the world. It is the world of THE PROFESSIONAL.
Ah, that elusive professional, that elusive real job...
When I was part of a group of organizers trying to unionize the Border’s Bookstore chain back in the nineties, we found that quite a few of the younger employees (and, oddly enough, those that were more vigorously tattooed) would tell us that they weren’t interested in joining the union because it wasn’t worth fighting for such a job. “What’s the point? I’m not staying here. This isn’t a real job.” Oh, that beautiful term. The irony (and the sorrow...and the stupidity) was that this was the same approach used by Borders Corporate Headquarters to fight unionization.
At first, the tactic was to have hip and happening younger executives from corporate headquarters tell us about the UNION THUGS who were only interested in getting more dues out of us. Keep in mind that our closest affiliate in the UFCW (Union Food and Commercial Workers Union), the union we were trying to join, were meat packers out of Davenport, Iowa, who weren’t going to get enough dues from our store to keep their office in pencils. “You’re better than that, aren’t you?” The corporate lackeys would say. “Don’t you want more freedom in the workplace?” And then they would continue to hiss in that alluring parseltongue of theirs: “If a union comes in, they will tell you what to do, how to run the store. They don’t know anything about this store.”
Some of us were actually paying attention and understood that we already had no freedom in the workplace, no benefits, were at-will employees, and yet we were the backbone of the entire corporation (back then, Borders actually talked about the knowledge of the booksellers as a selling point in their stock portfolios). The lie that is constantly spouted by corporations is the lie of freedom of choice. “Unions will tell you what to do! Unions will tell you what to do!” (Of course, they were riffing off the movie “On the Waterfront” where Union equals Corruption.) 

On the Waterfront
After we won, we found that each individual shop is autonomous. Our experience was that there was no central office – as in the corporate model – telling us what to do. We were in control of how and what the union did in the store – because the union in the store

Where was I? Union thugs.
When they found that beating us with the term union thugs wasn't going to get us to stop, the corporation began talking about how working at Border’s wasn’t a real job. (Yes, they actually used that term to workers in their own chain.) They explained to us that working for Borders (and this argument is used across the board at every chain retail outlet) was just something we should be doing part-time, working our way to something else. “C’mon, this isn’t supposed to be a people are smart folks, you don’t want to be here forever...this is a job for kids between undergraduate and graduate should have your eye on some higher prize.” They meant: something professional. You know, something more like what they were doing – crushing their employees.
Keep in mind, many of the people in the store who had joined the union had been in professional jobs – television, teaching, medical research, you name it – and had been laid off or phased out because of age, or ethical disagreements with management, or...the list goes on and on. So the argument that Borders used was basically this: this is not a real job, so if you want to stay here and fight for higher wages and benefits, then you must be a loser, someone who will not better themselves and do what needs to be done to get an actual bona-fide real job (You know, the paradisaical one that is out there, somewhere, beyond the rainbow).
The beauty of the argument is that if the work you are providing is not real, then of course the bosses don’t need to provide those things that are: a living wage, affordable health insurance, decent benefits for long-term service (things that make it so you are no longer in survival mode, but able to look around you, think about things other than how to pay next month’s rent, or feed the kids, or get the car fixed so you can get to work).
The job entailed up to forty hours a week. The booksellers and baristas worked hard. The work was as real as real can get.
All service work is real.
One third of all workers in this country are in the service economy now. That’s a huge part of the work force: retail clerks, domestic workers, telemarketers, maids, cashiers, burger slingers... 
So, tell me again, what is real?

Next Installment:
“The Customer is Always…”

(in which we return to the story of the hapless, bottom-feeding bookseller)

The puffed-up website for The National Retail Federation reports that retail supports 42 million jobs.The Department of Numbers, along with the Bureau of Labor Statistics give the total number of jobs at around 141 million. So, retail encompasses (give or take) about one third. A happy little graph with a breakdown of jobs into specific categories from the Bureau of Labor Statistics can be found here.


  1. Strong and to the point. Even a "real" job is much weaker without some kind of collective unit.

  2. Even though I only worked with you guys at Borders for a very brief time before you headed out to Colorado, I always had this feeling like the managers had this kind of empty Landmark Forum brainwash, glazed-over cow eye thing going on. Poopoo rolls down's sad seeing all highly educated people have to jockey for position in a work environment where we are all slaves but it's much better to be in the kitchen staff on the plantation vs in the fields. I look forward to the next installment of this fine article!