Retail and Service Workers Need to Unionize

Grocery store and retail employees are dying from Covid-19. None of them are getting paid enough for this sort of risk or have the benefits to cover them if they get sick. Even if they are given those benefits right now it won’t make up for a lifetime of not having them. The reason these workers have no voice is that they have consistently voted against unionizing in these industries across the country.

People lament the exit of good paying manufacturing jobs from the USA, but they fail to realize that the only reason those jobs paid well and had good benefits was because of unions. Before unions those jobs were worse than what are available now in retail and service. Manufacturing workers were often subject to extremely dangerous working conditions and long hours for low pay and no benefits at all. No retirement plan, no health insurance. Until 1938 their kids probably worked those jobs as well.

When people organized during the late 1800s the corporations called on armed goon squads to beat down union members, organizers and strikers. These people weren’t just risking a job to organize, they were risking their lives.

Yet today unions get a bad rap all around. Corporations and their political mouthpieces in the government have made unions out to be full of swindlers and con men with links to organized crime that are out to cheat laborers. When Reagan busted PATCO back in 1981 that opened the floodgates for corporations to throw labor under the bus. Reagan’s action cost the government billions of dollars, far more than PATCO had asked for in their negotiations, but he got away with it because corporations loved it.

As union membership waned in the 1980s, those decent paying jobs were shipped off to other countries. Why is this the case? Dean Baker in his book Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer explains how the game is set up.

The conventional story is that we lose manufacturing jobs to developing countries because they have hundreds of millions of people willing to do factory work at a fraction of the pay of manufacturing workers in the United States. This is true, but developing countries also have tens of millions of smart and ambitious people willing to work as doctors and lawyers in the United States at a fraction of the pay of the ones we have now.

Gains from trade work the same with doctors and lawyers as they do with textiles and steel. Our consumers would save hundreds of billions a year if we could hire professionals from developing countries and pay them salaries that are substantially less than what we pay our professionals now. The reason we import manufactured goods and not doctors is that we have designed the rules of trade that way. We deliberately write trade pacts to make it as easy as possible for U.S. companies to set up manufacturing operations abroad and ship the products back to the United States, but we have done little or nothing to remove the obstacles that professionals from other countries face in trying to work in the United States. The reason is simple: doctors and lawyers have more political power than autoworkers.

…The loss of manufacturing jobs also reduced the wages of less-educated workers (those without college degrees) more generally. The displaced manufacturing workers crowded into retail and other service sectors, putting downward pressure on wages there.

Having worked in retail both as a grunt and as a manager I can tell you from personal experience, major retailers are deathly afraid of unionization. Walmart has closed stores that have unionized. They eliminated butchers from 180 stores when one store’s meat department unionized. They settled for up to $640 million in 2008 for failing to pay workers overtime. They will literally lose billions just to avoid paying labor fair wages. They are not alone.

Corporations overall dedicate billions of dollars each year both towards lobbying for laws that weaken labor as well as paying for the services of companies that actively work at discouraging organized labor.

The only way to get labor back in a position where it can be effective is to have the majority of workers in these industries in a union, because that is the only way labor will have a voice in politics. There is no hope of electing someone that is sympathetic to labor and having them act on those promises without the political firepower to back them up.