Retailer Employers vs. Family Values

Quick: What's the greatest threat facing the American family? 

Okay, scratch that. There's no fast answer to such a big question. Over the past thirty years, though, a slew of politicians, religious leaders, and pundits have told a simple story about the American family under seige in a permissive society that tolerated -- or even encouraged -- divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and a rejection of parental authority. 

And to be sure, the family does face intense social pressures in an America where individualism is extremely powerful and key social institutions that preached restraint and sacrifice have broken down. 

But it's long past time to recognize that the economic pressures on family have become even more pernicious. To put the matter bluntly: Our current form of capitalism is at war with family values. 

A perfect example is how the retail sector -- one of the fastest areas of job growth -- treats workers with families. Any parent with a job knows that keeping stable hours is all important in order to maintain reliable child care arrangements. Unfortunately, large retailers have discovered that the dark practice of "just-in-time scheduling" is a great way to reduce labor costs and maximize proftis. With the help of new software, employers can better predict customer traffic and tailor their labor needs accordingly -- often through last minute changes to worker's schedules. 

That might all be great if workers didn't have lives. But, of course, they do. And kids.

In a 2011 report by Nancy Cauthen, Demos noted that just-in-time schedules "are challenging not only for parents but can create tremendous chaos and stress for children as well."

Last week, workers involved in the Just Hours campaign and the Retail Action Project showed up at the Javits Center in New York to protest a speech by the CEO of Walmart, Bill Simon, and draw attention to the destructive and unfair nature of just-in-time scheduling. 

Walter Arevalo, a former Walmart worker from New Jersey said:

I worked at Walmart for two years as a stock associate. My schedule was never predictable, and it only came out a few days ahead of time, making it hard for me to arrange childcare for my daughter. Once it was posted, it changed all the time -without anyone asking me if the changes were okay, or telling me about them. I’d show up to work get asked what I was doing there, or get called on my day off asking me where I was. It was crazy. I never knew how much my paycheck would be.

A CUNY study found that only 17% of workers surveyed have a set schedule and that 70% don’t even get one week’s notice of what their schedule will be. That's not just untenable for parents, it's untenable for just about anyone with other life obligations: such as college classes or other jobs.

Of course, retailers are just behaving rationally. Current labor law allows for these abusive practices and high unemployment, along with weak unions, means that employers can jerk around workers all they want. 

And that's exactly the problem with our present form of capitalism: Repugnant labor practices (or other bad behavior that hurts consumers, investors, or the environment) is both rational and rewarded. 

There are three main ways to change the incentives here: First, we need to raise labor standards and enact new rules that prohibit or deter abusive just-in-time scheduling. The Demos 2011 report on this topic proposed several policy changes, including enacting minimum hour requirements for workers.

Second, we need to make it easier for workers to join labor unions so someone is fighting management for reliable schedules. As Katherine Stone has written here, the union representing flight attendants has successfully taken on this issue and ensured stable lives for its members. 

Third, we need to change what corporations think is "rational" and which stakeholders they feel compelled to please. As long as management is only focused on keeping shareholders happy, workers will often get a raw deal -- along with consumers, investors, communities, etc. But in Germany and other countries, corporations are compelled by law to consider the interests of workers and other stakeholders. We need similar reforms here, such as mandating labor representation on corporate boards. More broadly, we need to overhaul the corporate chartering system in order to raise standards for corporations seeking to get and keep charters. 

In addition to those three steps to create more humane corporations, we need a bunch of reforms to ensure that workers have better access to paid leave and quality childcare. These are also outlined in Demos' 2011 report. 

The family is the most important institution in the social sphere. And the corporation is the most important institution in the economic sphere. In a well working society, these two institutions can't be at war with each other.