Overcoming the Sting of Poverty

Protesters rally on Utica's Liberty Bell Corner during the launch of Occupy Utica. (Photo: Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage)

By Justin A. Thompson/Guest

For almost 11 years, I have worked for a retail environment. In these 11 years, I have come to understand the culture of corporate America. Everyday I wake up with the grueling uncertainty of how I am going to pay my bills; how much money will I have for the week; and how much money will I be able to save. I put my best foot forward and head into a 4-8-hour day at work.

“Don’t forget to smile.”

“The Customer is always right.”

“We never know what the customer is going through.”

With a half chuckle I assume my duties. About an hour and a half in the routine; the predictability; and customer’s moods start to wear on me. Of course this doesn’t bode well with management and will most likely earn me a trip to my boss’s office because “I’m not a team player” I tell myself this all temporary; you need the money–what very little you earn.

I need to address the plight of low-wage workers and give them a voice; one that’s either silenced because of fear of losing employment or feeling the system will not listen. Retail corporations do very little for their employees; the bigger picture is on profits and expanding the brand. In my experience, unions are frowned upon for many reasons. They give the worker a voice, a union limits corporate power and it puts an onus on the corporation to stay within the boundaries of the law. Corporations will encourage their employees to not form unions because of “open door policies” which benefit the company more than the employee. I have utilized such polices in the past and have found that employers will put the blame on their employees rather than taking personal accountability for their actions. Doing so there is a psychological component; making the employee not want to utilize the policy because they know they will not be heard.

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Many retail and fast food environments do not offer: a living wage; a standard set of hours for the part-time or full-time employee; realistic health benefits; vacation time, or sick time. Even if the company offers sick or paid time off, you have to work an unrealistic set of hours to earn it. Many companies know, their employees will not earn the amount of said hours to earn this credit; therefore, it is not a concern to them.

Let’s take into account sick days. Considering much of the work force is part-time, roughly between 4-20 hours a week, can workers even call in? In my personal experience, I have had the dilemma of either missing eight hours of pay or staying home and attending to my needs. In terms of a consistent schedule, it does not exist in a retail establishment.

There is a psychological model most corporations will used based on industrial psychology: How can we make the worker more dependent on us? How can we keep the worker invested in the company? How do we exercise complete control over the worker?

The answer is quite simple; start the employee out with 8 hours a week, and then advise them if any call ins are reported they will be called (this leaves the employee unable to make any plans because of the unpredictability). Of course, if the employee isn’t reliable or failures to comply the company can use a “starve out” technique (the company will purposely cut hours in retaliation against the individual, forcing them to quit). This has been an admitted practice.

Why has the employee become silenced? Why are we afraid to speak up and demand changes? Why should the upper 1 percent own the means of production and reap all the benefits?picket-sign.jpg

We are the backbone of America, our communities, and the labor market. We sell your groceries, we pump your gas, we serve your food, we keep your businesses clean, we work the weekends, we work the holidays, we work the overnights, we work to sustain you—-the consumer.

Why is it too much to show a little humanity; to extend basic rights to the working class? We are the 99% and we will not be told to smile and to shut up and do our job!

A single mother should not have to cry at night because she can’t find a sitter for her child, a worker should not have to be afraid to be “written up” because they had an illness, fathers should not have to work 3 jobs just to put food on the table, and a mother should not have to work a full work week and not have food on the table for their family.

I am urging elected officials, managers, and CEOs of corporations across the United States and around the globe to revisit the issue of unionization.


About the Author: Justin Thompson is an adjunct professor of Social Science at Herkimer County Community College. He enjoys research in collective behavior, gender & sexuality, and political thought. Justin teaches undergraduate courses in Sociology, Criminology, Psychology, and Criminal Justice.  Justin is involved in the social justice community through a variety of mediums. He serves on his Universalist Church’s Board of Trustees and is a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign for President. The author of The Truth, Justin, and the American Way at SUNY Poly political column from 2009 to 2010, he has also had several articles published for the Utica Phoenix, Observer Dispatch, and other mediums.

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