There’s a line in Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 hit song that goes “I’d give the shirt right off my back, if I had the guts to say ... Take this job and shove it, I ain’t working here no more.” In the past year, fast-food, retail, and warehouse workers have shown they do have the guts—but instead of quitting, they’re fighting back. From New York to California they’re taking to the streets. They’re fighting for a living wage, for respect from their bosses, and in some cases, for the right to form a union.
Back in June 2012, eight immigrant workers peeling crawfish under sweatshop conditions for C.J.’s Seafood (then a Walmart supplier) went on strike in Louisiana. They stayed out for weeks, demanding an end to forced labor, wage theft, and other unfair labor practices—and they won. Following up on the C.J.’s workers’ successful action, Walmart warehouse workers in California and Illinois walked out in September, calling for improved workplace safety and a fair wage. A month later, Walmart associates walked out at 28 stores in twelve cities. The strikes marked the first time in history that Walmart retail workers had ever gone on strike, and were quickly followed by more strikes and demonstrations on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. [...]
Lousy jobs at fast-food joints and retail stores have been around for a long time. Sam Walton (of Walmart) and Ray Kroc (of McDonald’s) designed their business models around underpaying their employees. But experts have always brushed off calls to improve these jobs, arguing that they were stepping-stones—summer jobs for teenagers; flexible, part-time jobs for moms; or extra-cash jobs for retirees. It didn’t matter that the jobs paid low wages and offered little opportunity for advancement because they weren’t designed to support a family or be a career.
But, as good jobs have steadily disappeared over the past three decades, these rationalizations are starting to sound pretty tired. A recent report by Catherine Ruetschlin at the think-tank Demos shows that more than 90% of retail workers are over the age of 20 and that, for the vast majority, this is their full-time, long-term occupation. Labor researchers Stephanie Luce and Naoki Fujita paint a similar picture in a study of New York City-area retail workers. According to their survey, the median age of retail workers in New York is 24 years and the average retail worker has been working in the industry for five years.