Career Opportunities

A cashier at Walmart cleans her belt in between customers. This is basically all retail workers do now.

When I am not writing these “political diatribes,” as my mother refers to them, I work as a cashier at a local Hannaford. Even with a Master’s degree, these sorts of low-paying, non-unionized retail jobs seem to be the only ones I am, apparently, “qualified” for. (I have a non-verbal learning disability due to a rare metabolic condition called Galactosemia. As a result of this condition, I do not “perform” well in interviews for more “professional” jobs.)

I was fired from my last job, at a bourgeois independent UPS store in Kennebunk, Maine, for my political views. True story. Then, when I filed for unemployment, the store owner actively fought my eligibility with the Maine Department of Labor. And people wonder why I am not in thrall of small businesses.

Anyone who has worked even a day in retail knows full well how monotonous and utterly dehumanizing such jobs can be. And don’t even get me started on the arrogant, snobby, and at times downright hostile customers. But COVID-19 has merely augmented all of these horrific aspects of the retail industry.

Retail associates — many of them teenagers — have been physically assaulted by unhinged anti-masker Trump supporters merely for the “offense” of being politely asked to “please wear a face mask,” while shopping in the store. When we kindly request that customers unload their groceries at the end of the belt (so as to maintain six feet of distance between them and the cashier), they often flat out refuse to do so. Other customers will become immediately combative over this simple, reasonable request. During these toxic interactions, front-end managers never intervene on our behalf. Indeed, managers in general are pretty much useless.

Working in retail has made me realize how much of an outlier I am among the shopping public. As a customer, I tend to comply, without fuss, with whatever the clerk tells me to do. Half the time I reflexively apologize to him or her. This, sadly, is not how most of the shopping public treats working-class retail associates.

At the start of the pandemic, grocery store workers were praised as “heroes,” and part of the “essential” workforce. There was, for a brief moment, an overall recognition of the difficulty — and the insultingly low pay — of retail jobs. Customers would routinely “thank” us for “coming in to work, today,” as if we had any real choice in the matter.

But once this public recognition shifted to how “essential” workers like us should be adequately compensated during the pandemic (i.e. via paid sick-leave or hazard pay), corporate retailers suddenly stopped viewing their employees as so “heroic.” Our “thanks” now comes in the form of occasional free meals from Panera Bread. Much as I like free food, most landlords do not accept sandwiches from Panera Bread as an acceptable form of rent payment. (Though, really, they should, given that being a landlord is not a legitimate occupation.)

And yes, retail workers do have rent and other expenses. Contrary to popular belief, these sorts of jobs are not just for teenagers or college students. They are not “starter jobs,” designed to give young people “work experience.” The average age of a retail worker is 37 years old, according to the nonprofit, Families and Work Institute. Twenty-eight percent of retail workers have “completed some college,” while 15 percent have a “bachelor’s degree or higher.” Yet, retail jobs are routinely dismissed as “unskilled” occupations.

I can hear the libertarian readers, now: “If you hate your job so much, why don’t you quit and get a better one?”

The reality is working-class people like me have two options: We can engage in wage-labor in an institution completely bereft of any semblance of democracy for 40 hours a week or we can starve to death.

This is the “choice” capitalism offers us. Indeed, it is no real choice at all. For working-class people, participation in the capitalist economy is compulsory. And trading one capitalist job for another one does nothing to alter this scenario of “work-or-starve.” How any thinking person can look at such coercion and believe it constitutes “freedom” and “democracy” is beyond baffling.

My only solace is that I am not alone. Hundreds of working-class people in my generation are working crappy, low-wage retail jobs. Millennials like me did all the “right things.” We went to college where we worked hard to achieve good grades. Then we graduated into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Now, burdened with thousands of dollars in student loans, we struggle to find a “real job.” The jobs we did manage to find are ones most of us are vastly overqualified for. The U.S. gutted its manufacturing industry during the presidencies of both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, leaving retail and service industries the only “thriving” sectors.

Bob Dylan was right: “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.”

Given this generational shift, is it any wonder why thousands of young people are flocking toward socialism? Is it really so surprising that a majority of millennials prefer socialism over capitalism? Or, why there has been a renewed interest in union organizing, particularly in the last four years?

Economists during the 1960’s predicted that widespread automation in most industries would mean Americans would work less hours for the same amount of money. Working-class people would have more free time to indulge in arts, leisure, and recreation. You could finally write that novel you have been planning in your head for years, but never had the time to actually complete.

Instead, working-class Americans in the 21st century are working longer and harder than ever before — yet receiving no additional compensation. And the pandemic has merely highlighted all of the gaping holes in the U.S.’s already anemic social safety net. Never mind the fact that the United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not guarantee universal health care to all its citizens as a basic human right. It also stands out among industrialized nations as one of the few countries that does not offer workers any paid sick time.

The demand for these much-needed reforms to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalist exploitation (the right of all workers to form a union, Medicare for All, a living wage of $24 an hour — not the outdated $15, etc.) is best exemplified by the “democratic socialism” current of the resurgent socialist movement. This current is embodied by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Bernie Sanders, and Jacobin magazine.

But, while I fully support all of these reforms (and many more), our movement should strive to go further than merely improving capitalism. Our goal must be to abolish it, entirely.

Socialists should seek to radically transform the very institution of work. We should establish worker co-operatives wherein those who labor in a grocery store (or a school, factory, office, restaurant, Amazon warehouse, etc.) should collectively own the place. We want, in other words, to control the very means of production which capitalists rely on. Our labor-power is what allows these stores to function. Workers — not some overpaid corporate CEO who does nothing to contribute to the running of the business — should collectively run and govern our workplaces.

As the collectivist authors of CrimethInc. write in the introduction to their anarchist manifesto, Work:

At any time, we could all stop paying rent, mortgages, taxes, utilities; they would be powerless against us if we all quit at once. At any time, we could all stop going to work or school — or go to them and refuse to obey orders or leave the premises, instead turning them into community centers. …

Whenever my shift drags, I find myself thinking about this stuff…. Think of the unspeakable ways we’re all wasting our lives… What would it take to get that chain reaction started? Where do I go to meet people who don’t just hate their jobs, but are ready to be done with work once and for all?

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Writer, socialist, and coffee-fiend. I have written for the West End News, Socialist Worker, a bunch of decidedly less interesting publications.

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Adam Marletta

Adam Marletta

Writer, socialist, and coffee-fiend. I have written for the West End News, Socialist Worker, a bunch of decidedly less interesting publications.

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