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Why It Matters How Retail Treats its Workers

David Callahan

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, as America became an industrial power, the most important battles for labor rights unfolded at steel plants, coal mines, oil refineries, and at manufacturing plants around the country, particularly in the auto industry. 

Heavy industry and resource extraction were the biggest, most important employment sectors of the last century and the rise of the great American middle class was made possible because organized labor and government forced these sectors to fairly share their profits with workers in the form of higher wages and good benefits. 

These days, in an economy largely powered by consumer spending, the retail sector is among the central battlegrounds for labor rights and the future middle class. Two other crucial battlegrounds are healthcare and hospitality. Taken together, 45 million Americans work in retail, healthcare, and hospitality -- over four times the number employed in manufacturing. 

And these numbers are going to get even bigger.