While co-workers or workers in the same field will often talk about the conditions of their employment, most of the time “shop talk” gets shut down as a topic of conversation. Understandably so, as at least from my experience it’s primary functional is a form of catharsis rather than attempt to reach a solution to recurrent, everyday problems. Unions used to prove an avenue and forum for workplace issues, however as you can see from the below chart, many of those who first grew up in the 80s haven’t had such a practical-democratic experience.
This directly relates to the crisis of legitimacy in political institutions that has been becoming more exacerbated as wealth inequality has reached dramatic proportions. If we value the preservation of the conditions which allow for the flourishing of genuinely democratic institutions, this much change and collective decision making must increase.
All that said, since a number of people are now posting on social media their first seven jobs, I wanted to do the same – but in such a way so that people will understand why I support unions/workplace democracy. I think the anecdotes herein will show that though management often views themselves as superior to “regular employees,” they are often not and thus the pay and power dynamic gap which exists is largely unjustified. Speaking of power dynamics at play, please notice how I’ve excluded my work experience in my current field education. What that means is up to you to figure out. That said, on to the first seven jobs!
(1) Regal Movie Theaters
My first “real” job, even though the pay wasn’t great I received a few cash bonuses as I always enthusiastically recited the upsell prompts we were supposed to say and mystery shoppers validated that I did this. That was nice, but working concessions in general was awful. The manager verbally degraded me for weeks after I’d unwittingly hit on his girlfriend at the ticket counter as I wasn’t yet in on the open secret. He’d frequently mess with my schedule. Sometimes, right after clocking in for a shift, he would told me to go home “because they were overstaffed”. I’ve worked in enough service jobs since to know that this is sometimes the case, however I was the only one that this ever happened to and he’d also consistently assign me to hours that were illegal under Florida law as I was 16.
Even at 30 hours a week, while being in 10th grade full time, the pay barely covered the cost of gas and insurance for my car. Employees frequently stole from the tills. One day I came in and learned that several cashiers and an assistant manager had been fired for this The girlfriend, of course, became the new assistant manager. Three months after I left, this manager was arrested for embezzling $40,000 from the operations.
(2) Taco Bell
I was awarded employee of the month three of the four months I worked here. I found out that one of the other drive-thru employees I sometimes worked with had a side job of selling marijuana while on the clock. The store manager had let the night manager know that this was OK as none of the other people who had worked there before Larry (not his real name) had done a job half as good as him nor stayed more than a month. Larry, who was so charismatic I admit I looked up to him a little, even managed to keep his job after he got caught being in collusion with one of the line cooks for occasionally not ringing up orders but making it anyway and pocketing the money after the split.
When I asked what was going to happen – she said that she was going to keep a better eye on him and then admitted that her job was primarily to keep the place running smoothly, and that meant little issues like those above, as long as corporate didn’t found out, was fine with her. She said after a preamble stressing her age and life experience, that she wasn’t paid enough to worry that much about these little things.
Four hours into my third day working, I informed the manager that I was going to clock out and take my break. He said that he was fine with my clocking out, but after I did so I was to work the next thirty-minute break mandated by Florida Law because they had to get the newest shipment out onto the floor. I said I wouldn’t do that. He said that if that was my attitude, then I should leave. I did.
The cents-above-minimum wage pay meant again that morale was low and internal theft was high. One of the managers set the standards of the business operations by openly stealing CDs. He’d put them in the trash in the back office and recover them from the dumpster after closing. After I learned of this I explained to him that Napster made this unnecessary, but his motivation for the theft stemmed from resentment towards the company rather than need for the music.
About three months into my job a new store manager was brought in from another location. I didn’t realize this until a week after he left four months later, but he had initiated sexual relationships with two of the female workers there – 10 and 15 years his junior – by promising them raises and threatening to fire them if they said anything to anyone. He mistakenly mistexed, which lead confused new assistant manager to discover the situation and report it to HR in a fit of rage. The aforementioned manager was not fired, but moved to yet another store. I never investigated of something similar had transpired before or after, but the impression I received was that this company didn’t mind his sexual predation on subordinates as long as he was kept the books clearly updated and the procedures were properly followed.
(5) Hollywood Video
Before Netflix the people of Jupiter, Florida that wanted to get a movie to watch would usually be forced to encounter one of the creepiest and weirdest dudes I’ve ever met to date. He looked like Jeff Albertson from The Simpsons, had a taste for extremely graphic horror films like Face of Death and would make lecherous comments to the young girls that came in alone or in small groups. He would leave me alone in the store sometimes, saying he had to do paperwork in the back. I’d called out to him a few times while we were having an unusual for a Thursday rush but got no response. I went to the back and through the crack in the office area could see that he was pleasuring himself to paused security camera video of a girl that had come in maybe fifteen minutes earlier wearing a bikini top and daisy dukes. I said nothing, finished my shift, and then called in sick the next day. I called the HR department number in the paperwork I’d been given my first day and after told them what happened. After much awkwardness, they said there was nothing they could do about it as there was no real hard evidence or anyone to corroborate my story. I’m sympathetic to this line of reasoning, but it still didn’t sit right with me so the next day I called in again and said I wasn’t coming back and to please just mail my check to me.
Unlike most of the above places, I genuinely liked working here. The tips we made at this time was made prior to the opening of a million other coffee shops in downtown Delray Beach and averaged about $4-5 cash an hour – so a whole extra 1/3 in addition to our base pay.
As part of a Sociology class at FAU, however, I researched the company and learned of a number of issues that reframed my perceptions. For one, just how profitable the company was and roughly how much they were making off of my labor. I did some statistical math based on their own figures and determined that they’d be able to give a wage increase of almost a dollar an hour and still be profitable. At the time they’d just decided to give all of their “partners” who’d been with the company more than a year an extra $1000, but as I was only there for 10 months I was excluded.
I also learned that the Ethos water that we stocked at the time, which had a retail cost of $2.60, had a production/distribution cost of $.07. Given that this marketed as a way of donating money to water-assistance NGOs in Africa and that the percentage turned over equated to $.05 I was rather bothered. I learned that other stores with people also becoming more aware of their exploitation and were unionizing. I tried, without any organizing experience, to do the same and had my hours cut to nothing for two weeks due to a “scheduling mistake”.
(7) HD Repair – Internet Marketing:
In retrospect it seems dumb on my part to trust business owner that asked me to do online reputation management in addition to the content marketing/SEO optimization that I was already doing for him. I had some reservations, but I really wanted to believe Robert Roxberry’s promise that the work I was doing would be that which would launch me into a much larger marketing/content production project that he described the outlines of and that I was able to easily fill in with my imagination. I admit it! I was taken in by the fantasy he presented.
Immediately after I’d finished a month’s of work for him and our contract for marketing services was over, he disconnected my company email, had security disallow me to enter the building to talk to him and threatened to call that cops from me and all because he decided he didn’t want to pay me the second payment on the contract we’d verbally outlined. It came out to me as loss of $3000. I spent some time researching how to take him to small claims court, but then decided to just chalk up the whole thing as a learning experience.
Amusingly enough a few months after I left a class action lawsuit was brought against him by unpaid sub-contractors. Another one was brought by one of the TV manufacturers he contracted for.