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The New Fight for Sustainable Scheduling

Amy Traub

The National Retail Federation is bearing glad tidings for the upcoming holiday season: America’s stores are expecting solid growth in holiday sales and may hire more than half a million seasonal employees. Non-seasonal employment in the sector is also improving, as retailers, led by clothing and clothing accessories stores, added 9,400 new jobs in September. But if business is booming in the retail sector, why are current retail workers hustling each week for enough hours to get by?

The problem is under-employment as a business strategy -- where workers see their hours cut at the last minute and are given on-call shifts to correspond to minute fluctuations in consumer demand. This just-in-time scheduling model may save retailers on labor costs in the short term, but it wreaks havoc on retail employees’ attempts to plan their days and weeks or make budgets. Set retail wages aside for a moment: today’s workplace struggle is just as much about stable, predictable schedules that allow employees to attend school, get a second job, or plan child care.

That’s the fight that brought retail workers and their allies to the sidewalks of Manhattan’s posh 5th Avenue shopping district yesterday. Organized by the Retail Action Project, demonstrators highlighted a “wheel of misfortune,” illustrating the lousy odds that workers would actually get to work the shift they were scheduled for. At the same time, employees called out some of the large and profitable companies that are short-shifting their workforce. The first target was Abercrombie and Fitch, which has slashed employee schedules while continuing to hire new workers, according to a petition for sustainable scheduling started by one frustrated worker. “Abercrombie & Fitch portrays a happy and carefree lifestyle,” points out employee Bintou Kamara, “but people like me who work in their stores are struggling because we don’t get enough hours. . . My co-workers and I have asked our managers for more hours, but we’re told that’s just how it is.”

It may be how it is, but that’s not how it has to be: as Demos fellow Katherine Stone pointed out on this blog recently, collective bargaining in the airline industry helped flight attendants to overcome the much more complicated scheduling challenges of working on board inter-state and international flights.  Closer to home, the retail union representing New York City’s major department stores has negotiated contracts that guarantee hours for part-time and full-time workers and provide schedules well in advance.  

But how do struggling part-time employees of Abercrombie & Fitch, UNIQLO or other 5th Avenue retailers get to that point? The Retail Action Project announces that it aims to “build worker and community power to hold corporate retailers accountable and advance policy solutions.” And that’s exactly what it will take.