For retail workers, difficult times in a seemingly strong economy

Stuart Appelbaum, President Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union | 7/18/2019, 1:49 p.m.
While the economy seems to be doing well, and retail companies, their CEOs, and their stockholders seem to be doing ...
Stuart Appelbaum

While the economy seems to be doing well, and retail companies, their CEOs, and their stockholders seem to be doing well, there’s a group that’s in danger of being left behind: retail workers, many of whom find daily life a struggle to not only advance, but to survive.

And that’s wrong, because traditional retail is still a strong and growing sector of our economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail industry continues to be one of the largest employment sectors in the U.S. and is projected to add half a million jobs through 2026. And while e-commerce is having an impact on brick and mortar retail, it still makes up less than 10 percent of total retail sales in the U.S. Traditional retail is still the dominant player today in the retail industry.

Unfortunately, retail workers have not benefited from growth in the industry, just like most working Americans haven’t seen any of the benefits of a supposedly strong economy. The median annual wage for a retail cashier stands at just over $22,000, and for a retail salesperson at just over $24,000. The Federal Poverty Level for a family of four hoovers at around $25,000.

Besides chronically low wages, especially for non-union retail employees, retail workers face a number of challenges that can make life a daily struggle of frustration. Scheduling issues abound, with many workers struggling with insufficient and inconsistent hours. The practice of “clopenings,” where workers are scheduled for late night shifts followed by early morning opening shifts, can wreak havoc with workers’ lives. Harassment and inappropriate treatment by customers and supervisors is an issue for many retail workers, who are predominantly female.

E-commerce also presents challenges for retail workers, even while traditional retail remains strong. Stores often encourage customers to shop online, even while they are in the store, which can cost employees valuable time and commission pay. Customers will order products online, find they don’t fit or just don’t like them, and return them at brick and mortar stores, where employees have to process returns instead of making commission sales on the floor.

Above all, retail workers in the U.S. are getting fed up of being treated like commodities and having no say in their schedules, pay, and treatment. That’s why over the past decade, many have sought union membership. In New York, workers at H&M and Zara have joined the RWDSU, negotiating strong contracts that give them the representation they need to help build better lives with their jobs. Longtime RWDSU members at retail stalwarts such as Macy’s, Bloomingdales, and Modell’s have continued to negotiate good contracts that are helping them adapt to the new realities of the marketplace and the competition and challenges brought up by e-commerce.

There are almost 16 million retail workers in the U.S., and they are an important part of our communities, neighborhoods, and our economy. And while the retail industry is working for CEOs and stockholders, it isn’t working for many of the retail workers whose efforts are the underpinnings of an industry that continues to grow. For our economy to be truly strong, that needs to change.