Essential, but so What?

ACORN International Dollar Stores Labor Local 100 Organizing United Labor Unions Workers

            New Orleans      Working Class Perspectives gave me the honor of the Labor Day blog again this year, so it’s a pleasure to share it with you, while hoping you remember the value of labor on this day of recognition.

Essential Workers Take Action

            During the pandemic, the working class that had been invisible to many suddenly became “essential.” In some cities, people came on their balconies in their homes to applaud these workers whose jobs in food service, health care, transportation, and other fields now seemed both necessary and perilous.  They kept working, often because they had no choice.  Though the virus in its many variants continues to rage, many people have decided that it’s over. They want to return to “normal,” whatever that might be.  What does that mean for the suddenly critical working class? Did becoming “essential” change anything for them?  and their new found recognition as suddenly critical?  What now?  What changed, if anything?

One change seems to be in what workers will put up with.  We see some evidence of this in the stirring of worker organizing in this “movement moment”: Starbucks election victories, Amazon workers rising, organizing efforts in co-ops like REI and among gamers, adjuncts, and many more. Do workers now have enough visibility to win these battles? Or are these small uprisings inspiring but isolated? Are they exceptions or signs of a coming rule?

Part of the answer may lie in the rising resistance among some less visible workers. The Workers Organizing Support Center, a project of ACORN International and the United Labor Unions, has been talking to the workers behind the counters of dollar stores around the country.  Dollar stores are ubiquitous in urban lower-income neighborhoods and rural areas. If Amazon is the “everything store,” dollar stores are the “everywhere stores.”

Dollar General has more than 18,000 outlets and the jointly owned Family Dollar and Dollar Tree operate another 15,000.  In fact, these stores are so common that some cities treat them like nuisances, limiting the number in certain areas and distance between stores as they do with liquor stores and payday lending outlets.

Yet dollar stores are also often the oases in food deserts, and communities and the government are pushing them to offer more fresh fruit and vegetables.  Dollar General claims that 2000 of its stores now offer some fresh items, and that more are coming.  A recent experimental rollout added ten stores to the fresh alternatives program in Little Rock, Arkansas, where they are also opening a new, giant distribution warehouse.

Given this, surely we should see the more than over 100,000 workers across these chains as among the most vital essential workers.  Yet the stories we’re hearing from workers who have recently organized Dollar Store Workers United (DSWU) make clear that the business model for these stores views workers as expendable and exploitable.

Dollar stores start workers at the federal minimum wage, which has not risen in years despite plenty of discussion and activism, or the state minimum wage, if they are lucky to work where that minimum is higher. Workers also start out working far less than a full schedule as well.  One new Family Dollar hire told us that he hardly worked a dozen hours a week, including two one-hour opening shifts.  The company might call it training, but that’s a euphemism for sure.  But the stories we’ve heard go beyond poverty-level wages and ridiculously skimpy hours, conditions workers knew that when they hired on.  Once on the job, workers encounter short staffing, little security even in high-crime areas, bad scheduling, store infestations of rats and other cleanliness issues, air-conditioning breakdowns, and inept to non-existent maintenance are constant complaints.  Reading the Facebook pages that DSWU workers and leaders have created is an experience with doom scrolling in a fresh hell.  A post might sound unbelievable, but a dozen comments from other workers confirm even the worst stories.

The situation isn’t much better for dollar store managers. They make just a few dollars more than what is mandated by new Department of Labor Wage and Hour guidelines for exempt workers.  At around $684 per week, someone working 40-hours per week, 52 weeks per year would earn just $34216.  But most managers routinely work 60, 80, and even 100-hour weeks.  The companies blame this on labor shortages, but low pay and high hours are so embedded in the business model that their claims are hard to believe.  Some store managers are preparing a class action to sue for overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act, so there’s some hope in the by and by.

Many dollar store workers are talking about taking action right now, either walking out or demonstrating in front of their stores.  DSWU has identified as many as 50 stores where workers are planning protests. Obviously, that’s just a start, but it’s encouraging that this is happening all around the country, in cities and towns large (Tampa, Florida), medium (Midvale, Utah 33000), and small (Pulaski, Tennessee 8000).

Their actions probably won’t be on the front pages like Starbucks, Amazon, or REI, but dollar store workers are saying they won’t take this anymore. If Dollar Store Workers United continues to gain traction and momentum, they may prove that being essential doesn’t give employers a license to exploit. Rather, essential workers deserve a living wage as well as  respect and dignity on the job.  If they make progress, the movement moment will be heard across the country.