Breaking the Retail Chains

The retail sector has been notoriously tricky to unionize, but there is a way forward.

This past summer, just like in June 2011, thousands of New York City Macy’s workers were ready to strike. In either case it would have been the first work stoppage at the storied department store since 1972, but instead, in the wee hours of the morning, representatives of Local 1-S of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union called off the strike and agreed to a tepid five-year deal. Also in 2011, workers at a nearby Long Island Target store cast ballots in a unionization drive. Like most such elections recently it failed, dashing hopes for a new union beachhead in big-box retail.

Alongside fast-food, retail is among the most recognizable “bad job” sectors in twenty-first-century America. It has become synonymous with low-wage, unstable, “stopgap” work. Average wages for nonsupervisory workers are 30 percent below the private-sector average, and those in general merchandise — which includes Macy’s, Target, and Walmart — are 44 percent lower. And less than 5 percent of retail workers are unionized today, down from more than ten percent in 1983.

Retail thus appears ripe for organizing and the boost in wages this has historically brought. Nelson Lichtenstein argues that big-box retail provides “the template of twenty-first-century capitalism” and is therefore central to revitalizing US labor. Yet the broad failure to unionize retail seems to symbolize the main dilemmas facing American unions: their cautious conservatism in remaining strongholds and their inability to organize new ones.

Plenty of ink has been spilt trying to explain labor’s predicament and identify the sources of its renewal. Many accounts point to “globalization” as the cause tout court of the weakening of workers’ bargaining power and fierce employer resistance. Others emphasize government actions — particularly under Reagan and Clinton — such as financial and industrial deregulation, reduced taxes on wealth, and NAFTA. And still others assign considerable blame to bureaucratic union leadership as many leaders proved unwilling to combat the onslaught of concessions and plant closures beginning in the 1980s.

A less straightforward, but equally popular explanation of union decline focuses on the rise of service employment — which now constitutes more than three-quarters of the workforce in countries like the United States — and how the service sector presents unique barriers to unionization. To be sure in retail, personal, and business services — which encompass nearly half of US workers and have unionization rates of less than 10 percent — the picture is pretty grim. Yet at the same time, key service subsectors like health, education, and transportation, boast some of the highest unionization rates today.

So why are unions so broadly absent in these sectors where conditions seem to cry out for redress? Is there something intrinsic to interactive services that repels unionization and its seeming pre-requisite, a collective, oppositional consciousness? And how are such workplaces changing? Are they tending in directions that might encourage or further inhibit worker organizing?

These questions led me to spend two years interviewing sales workers in New York City. I wanted to understand the daily experience of those most exposed to contemporary low-road capitalism — to understand their interpersonal networks and political views. Rather than taking a scatter-shot approach and interviewing workers from many places and industries, I decided to focus in-depth on those who worked at two icons of America’s biggest low-wage industry in its most unequal city — Macy’s and Target. My conversations with workers revealed three main takeaways about the nature of low-wage retail work and the possibilities for making these bad jobs better.


Today’s retail workers inhabit roles that have been steadily and deliberately deskilled. Harry Braverman famously advanced this perspective in the 1970s about the majority of US jobs, but in the years since a different narrative of service work, one that focuses on “upgrading” and “flexibility,” has become dominant. Even well-meaning leftists often emphasize the degree to which low-wage jobs require “skill,” patience, and effort. Few honest observers would deny the latter half of this claim, but the objective fact is that employers continue to divvy up, routinize, and mechanize jobs wherever possible to make retail workers more expendable and reduce their bargaining power.

Whereas it was once the case in traditional department stores that “salespersons sold and cashiers cashed,” as a Macy’s saleswoman with eighteen years of experience put it, today “you do everything, you are a glorified stock person,” related her thirty-one-year veteran colleague. And compared with Target, even Macy’s jobs seemed skilled. According to workers, Target was a “simple job, it’s not like you have to think a lot,” said a one-year sales-floor “team member,” “it’s kind of relaxing.” There, salespersons hardly “sold” at all, but stocked displays according to pre-specified planograms while providing occasional “Fast, Fun, Friendly” service. “The routine,” explained a first-year Target salesman, “is you come in and if there is re-shop, you put it where it is supposed to be. Then you get back to your zone and you zone it — push everything forward and make it look neat and clean. That’s basically what we do. And help customers.”

Deskilling at Target and Macy’s has been combined with the collectivization of workers’ tasks. Macy’s workers found themselves collaborating ever more to maintain displays (though still competed over sales) due to a waning number of support staff, while Target’s workforce was more thoroughly interdependent. “Working together?” replied a one-year Target saleswoman to my question about cooperation, “a good 90 percent of the time.”

Her one-year colleague concurred: “there is no single day we move apart; we are always together.” Target workers would often be given group objectives such as loading up carts or zoning an aisle; selling itself was a collective, multi-stage endeavor (some stocked, others helped find, while others closed purchases); and most workers rotated among departments as needed. “Everybody is cross-trained,” said a three-year cashier, “that way if another department needs help they can take one of us.”

Managers also presented a friendly, informal façade, particularly at Target where they often chatted about sports and school and regularly offered frontline workers free food and “recognition cards” at twice-daily “huddles.”

Friendliness ended when it came to unions however. “They tried to make Target a union store,” related an eleven-year saleswoman about an earlier organizing effort, “but [management] didn’t allow it — anybody that agreed with it would get fired.” At nonunion Macy’s (some Macy’s stores are unionized), whenever organizers representing unionized stores approached workers, “managers just give you this look like ‘you best not say yes to any of this shit,’” said a first-year saleswoman.

These efforts to keep out unions have been largely successful: despite steady degradation in the quality and pay of Macy’s jobs, unions have not advanced in forty years past their Fordist-era strongholds. In the 1930s and ‘40s, many urban department stores, including Macy’s, were organized on a wave of labor insurgency. But due to infighting and splits over Taft-Hartley’s non-Communist affidavits and the exodus to the suburbs, this wave had clearly ebbed by the late 1950s.

Walmart, Kmart, and Target, all launched in 1962, quickly came to dominate the retail landscape using a self-service model built on low wages, routinization, and precarity. Unions have thus far failed to gain traction at these firms beyond two short-lived cases at Walmart and the soon-to-be-outsourced pharmacy of one Target store I studied.

Contingent Control

The second insight I gained by talking to retail workers was that these multi-pronged changes in the organization of work have congealed into a new regime that could be characterized as contingent control, defined by non-permanent employment for nearly everyone. Such pervasive precarity is only sustainable given the simplification and routinization of sales tasks, managers’ “soft” supervision, and a restructuring of the workforce around youth, elderly, and other “secondary” demographic categories.

“Target is a great place to work, for now,” explained a one-year stock worker in his twenties. But “in five years? I don’t even want to be here in like a year.” “These managers are some of the nicest I’ve ever had,” said a three-year food-server, “you could have a cereal day, a milk and cookies day in the break room. A lot of people don’t have money to buy food so that’s great.” A four-year Macy’s saleswoman in her forties found it simply “a struggle. I have another part-time job and I’ve got kids. But it’s mostly kids [who work] here who want to go to school. I’m just here because there’s nothing else I could do.”

Although this regime convinces many employees that “there is no alternative” and that unions are bad, it clearly has its limits. For many workers, the dissonance between managers’ friendly, human-relations style and the unsustainable nature of their jobs is too jarring to ignore. A one-year Target saleswoman and part-time teacher found her managers “pretty open to suggestions, but nobody really says too much . . . they are usually telling us why hours are not being dispersed because we are not making [store-wide] sales goals.”

A four-year, full-time Macy’s saleswoman, though she “g[o]t on alright” with her supervisors, earned $9.15 an hour, and required a Section 8 voucher to afford housing. “I can’t get Medicaid because I make too much,” she told me, “so I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t.”

Her colleague, a two-year saleswoman, found that “for rent you have to save up for three weeks just to make it. It’s that level of living.” And a one-year Target salesman who made $9.50, but otherwise had few complaints about management, acknowledged that “this is hand to mouth, you know what I mean? This is just keeping what I need to survive, this can’t buy me a house.”


The third takeaway was that contingent control at Target and the transition towards it at older firms like Macy’s produces new and surprising forms of consciousness. Macy’s workers, particularly at unionized stores, displayed classic attitudes of craft identity and opposition, seeing managers as “a class above” who swooped in periodically to berate and belittle them. “Even when Macy’s doesn’t have a supervisor on the floor,” said a four-year saleswoman, “we still join together and do what we have to.” “We do our own thing,” said another, “they tell us what to do but if we don’t feel like doing it we don’t really do it.”

Not so at Target, where contingent control was in full bloom. “I joke with my managers all the time,” remarked a first-year saleswoman, “they like to raise our spirits, to make sure we’re happy.” A one-year salesman felt like “we actually get a breakdown, we get a perspective of what’s going to happen.”

But warmth toward management and lack of job identity were also combined with greater solidarity between Target workers than their Macy’s peers. “In Macy’s, they were trying to individualize you,” said a first-year Target and former Macy’s worker, “Target is more as a group.” “I am not working for myself, I am working for the team,” said her stock-room colleague, “I don’t see it as competition, but my team leader, maybe he sees it as competition.” And a four-year salesman, though in the minority, combined this solidarity with outright opposition: “I think there should be a union,” he said, “some of the things that have happened? It’s unfair. If there was a union we would be getting paid more.”

What I found, perhaps unsurprisingly, was that slightly higher skill levels and hostile managers gave Macy’s workers greater pride in their jobs and increased their opposition. At Target, collectivization and shared youth identity produced more solidarity though the deskilled nature of work discouraged all but an instrumental association with one’s tasks. These inverted patterns point to the organizing potential of both craft identity and team-based solidarity. Only the first is readily actionable in the minority of Macy’s unionized stores (about twelve nationally). The second provides a tantalizing if minimally explored pathway to organizing more dominant discount retailers.

But beyond the workplace many of those I spoke to also had deep-seated political grievances. Regardless of who they worked for, how old they were, whether they were male or female, black or white, or had a college degree or not, low-wage workers felt betrayed by a political-economic system. “America is supposed to be all capitalist,” said a first-year Macy’s saleswoman, “but it really is a monopoly. They will sell you the American dream with the dog and the picket fence but it is so not true.”

Her coworker complained of how “people become rich and famous off things like online news channels, while those of us who’ve been working for forty years never make it,” and a two-year saleswoman at a different store thought politicians’ agenda was “not that of the 99 percent! It’s obviously the wealthy and business who hire these people to go to Washington.” A middle-aged Macy’s saleswoman simply reflected that “it’s cold out there. You can’t even get public housing, you can’t even get public grants no more. The system is not the way it once was. We had people locked up and incarcerated then but now it’s more.”

Workplace-level differences disappeared when we talked about these themes. Though not always connected to their particular employer, many precarious workers recognized their abject exclusion from power and the circus that mainstream politics had become. “None of them are good,” said a seven-year saleswoman about politicians, “they promise you, promise you, promise you until they get into office. Then the things I see disgust me.”

But without a viable political alternative or a union that linked politicians’ betrayal to the interests of the firms like Macy’s and Target, most workers I spoke with expressed a defensive pessimism and a preference for individual escape paths. “I don’t get into politics,” stated a first-year saleswoman, “you just have to find your niche, hopefully it pays, and be happy with it.”


The time I spent talking with Target and Macy’s workers was a localized project to be sure. But the insights gained sketch the outlines of a subjective force that could challenge low-wage capitalism and help rebuild the labor movement.

Precarious workers are under a host of objective pressures that have both atomizing and unifying effects. On the one hand, their jobs have been degraded, deskilled, and flexibilized — they rotate through routinized roles both in and across workplaces. This undermines job identity and pride as sources of collectivism and resistance. Simplification and the “rationalization” of services, however, require them to cooperate more and more on the job. This engenders a team-based, collectivism that could be a major advantage to new organizing.

At present, the calculated (though low-cost) welfarism and employee “outreach” of contingent control extend this ethos to managers, who are often seen by workers as part of the team. But the dissonance between bad jobs, on the one hand, and “good” managers, on the other, is irrepressible for many.

Where concrete alternatives are on offer — such RWDSU locals at some Macy’s stores, broader movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Fight for $15, and even the abstract concept of “some union” — many workers flock to them. A large majority of those at unionized Macy’s had favorable views of Local 1-S, despite its inability to win major gains for years, and fully a third of those workers I spoke with at nonunion Target wanted to be organized. Most of the rest were not consciously anti-union, but simply didn’t know what unions were or what they could do. “I don’t know how that works,” said a two-year Target cashier; “I don’t have any idea about the union so I don’t know how they could help me,” concurred her first-year colleague.

Clearly, there are possibilities here. Attempts to organize low-wage service and other precarious workers on a shop-by-shop basis, while admirable, have proven Sisyphean at large employers like Walmart, Target, and McDonald’s. Organizers sweep in on a tide of local grievances and resource allocation by their union sponsors, only to come up time and again against a wall of consultant-orchestrated resistance. When these campaigns fail, as they often do, unions withdraw leaving workers without sustainable structures for organizing or simply countering managerial propaganda.

And what few campaigns ever do, even when present and active, is connect workers’ grievances against employers to the generalized bankruptcy of both political parties — a state of affairs many of them already recognize and carry with them from job to job or even when out of work.

Nonetheless, something can be built. In many places, the transition to precarious work regimes has created a collectivism among workers that provides the germ of its own end. Actualizing this end, however, requires ongoing interventions that workers can link up with between hot-shop campaigns.

The Fight for $15 and its associated organizations are an attempt at this. They have raised the hopes of many low-wage workers who wish to escape deadening routines of “friendly” exploitation, and convinced many more that this is a necessity. But at the moment there is little available in the way of local, accessible, and democratic activism. The campaign has leveraged symbolic power to capture public attention yet is unwilling to speak political truth, given its leaders’ deep ties to Democratic Party, and has stalled in its quest for real economic power.

Advancing to something more radical requires ongoing collectivities — proto- or minority unions — that can build on service workers’ increasing collectivism, connect with those at more vulnerable points in the supply chain, and link their political disgust to the behavior of employers.

In this era of crisis and renewal, the pendulum of capitalism seems poised to swing back toward worker power and the myriad possibilities that contains. But neither “objective processes” nor fervent activism will do it alone. Labor’s practical initiatives will be all the more likely to succeed when closely aligned with the locally determined consciousness of workers.